Thursday, 6 August 2015

Lessons learned - the big daddy of failures

In the 1980s General Motors was in trouble. Financial trouble (Detroit was surviving on massive government cash handouts), union trouble (workers would deliberately leave rattling parts inside door panels and get drunk on the lines) and was losing massive amounts of market share to Japanese imports. Toyota and Honda were showing-up the GM products for what they were; shoddy, poorly designed, thirsty dinosaur cars. Then came a remarkable offer from Toyota - they would show General Motors how they build quality, profitable, desirable vehicles. Not only that, but they would build and jointly run a car manufacturing plant in the US to actually teach GM how to build the best mass-produced quality cars in the world. The result was the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) factory in Fremont California.
Why would Toyota do that? Surely helping an ailing competitor would be like turkeys voting for Christmas?
What happened is the stuff of legend; a great story about how successfully applying lessons and transferring knowledge is nuanced and much more than replicating 'good practice'. Did Toyota know that GM would simply be unable to understand, let alone replicate, the culture and ethos that we now know as 'kaizen'? Did GM know that it was Toyota that actually wanted to understand the American way, so that its planned US manufacturing expansion would take account of US worker sensibilities?
For anyone interested in this story and the cultural and organisational learning aspects of knowledge transfer, I heartily recommend listening to Frank Langfitt's 'This American Life' NUMMI podcast.‌ First broadcast in 2010, this story is truly the daddy of lessons not learned, resulting in the original 'too big to fail' bail-out. The naivety, missed opportunities, incompetence and yes, some success will make you laugh and weep; like the big hairy auto worker whose life was changed by the experience. 
Did GM did learn and apply the lessons from Toyota? It took GM and the other US auto manufacturers decades to really take advantage of what Toyota offered them. That's probably why you are driving a Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Lexus or Toyota today.

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