NUMMI and Japanese management

This is about two things very dear to me: Asia and industrial production. (I imagine nobody who reads Guerrilla Semiotics knew how much I am into industry until this moment, so I welcome you into the know. Just the other day I regretfully thought about how, among all the low-paid jobs I’ve ever had, I have missed out on working on the factory floor. One day I will write a long post about how industrial production is incredibly important, but I don’t think that day is today.)

Europe is very many beautiful things, but it tends towards arrogance and chauvinism – especially towards Asia, perhaps because Asia is the immediate threat, the rising competition. In my past 12 months in Germany, I have seen more incidents of open, upfront, unembarrassed racism than I have seen in 6 years in Australia (although, to be precise, it came largely from French and Italian people, not from Germans; the two times I had to break some of that residual sense of propriety we have towards haters and say ‘You are a racist’, the person saying ‘No, I’m not!’ to my ‘Yes, you are a racist’ was in both situations French).

One of the most common ways in which Europeans flatter themselves is by claiming that Asia / Asians may be doing well economically, but they have no tradition of democracy, critical thinking, and the respect for the individual. In particular, democracy gets a lot of talk-time, because Asians are considered to be prone to group-think and totalitarianism, and the example given tends to be Mao Zedong. Racism towards Asian people is rife throughout the white people’s world, and I have seen it in Australia (very often people claiming to be ‘afraid of China’s rise’ or some such thing), and I’ve seen it among educated people who hold dearly values of openness and tolerance (which is to say, it is important to them to feel that they’re open-minded and tolerant), but in Europe I was quite astounded at how readily this thesis of there is no respect for the individual in Asia was bandied about by people who knew nothing about Asia.

So, anyway: NUMMI. I’ve discovered the story of NUMMI on This American Life, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to learn new things about the world. NUMMI was one of the worst-performing car manufacturing plants within General Motors, plagued by low performance, open hostility between management and the workers, and very poor work discipline among the workers (something like 1/5 of the workers were absent at any time). It closed and then re-opened, keeping the same workers, as a part of a deal between GM and Toyota, in the 1970s. As a part of the deal, NUMMI would produce cars for Toyota, but had to learn to operate under the management rules of Toyota, which are as representative of the Japanese work culture as General Motors is representative of the American management practices.

You can listen to the entire radio program here, as well as read the transcript, but here are a few highlights outlining what happened. For training, NUMMI workers were flown to Japan, where they spent 3 months learning how to operate on a Japanese factory floor.

The key to the Toyota production system was a principle so basic it sounds like an empty management slogan– teamwork. Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. The Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five– switch jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. And a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.

Jeffrey Liker
And they start to do the job, and they were pretty proud because they were building cars back in the United States, and they wanted to show they could do it within the time allotted, and they would usually get behind. And they would struggle, and they would try to catch up, and at some point, somebody would come over and say, do you want me to help? And that was a revelation, because nobody in the GM plant would ever ask to help. They would come yell at you because you got behind.

John Shook
Really, we wanted to give them a chance to see and experience a different way of doing things. We wanted them to see the culture there, the way people work together to solve problems.

Jeffrey Liker
Then the biggest surprise was, when they had those problems, afterwards, somebody would come up to them and say, what are your ideas for improvement so we don’t have that problem again?

Frank Langfitt
So they’d make suggestions for a different kind of tool that would be better for the job, or a different place for bolts and parts to sit that would be easier to reach.

Jeffrey Liker
They couldn’t believe that responsiveness. I can’t remember anytime in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know, and when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly, they disappear and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described– it’s built– and they say, “Try this.”

Frank Langfitt
Under the Toyota system, when a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so. Everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process, all the time. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement.

And if you look around a Toyota plant, you can see the result of all those improvements. You see mats for workers to stand on, special cushions they throw into the car frames when they have to kneel inside, hanging shelves that travel along with the car and the worker, carrying parts and bolts they need within easy reach. Similarly, workers tasks have been streamlined to the fewest possible steps, each step timed down to the second.


NUMMI adopted the practices, and became one of the best-performing manufacturing plants in the US. GM started haemorraghing money soon after, and tried to implement the lessons learnt at NUMMI in other plants, but ran into a great deal of resistance, from the workers, the unions, and the management. Particularly the management.

Frank Langfitt
At Van Nuys, it wasn’t just union members who resisted the Japanese system. Managers didn’t like it either. They had their own privileges to protect. Some opposed the idea of stopping the assembly line because their bonuses depended on the number of cars that rolled off that line– never mind how many defects they had.

And under the team concept, executives and workers all share the same cafeteria and parking lot. Managers at NUMMI didn’t have a problem with that, but the managers at Van Nuys?

Bruce Lee
They rioted.

Frank Langfitt
The UAW’s Bruce Lee remembers getting a phone call from plant supervisor Ernie Schaefer about his managers.

Bruce Lee
They’d basically told Ernie, you do that and we’re out of here. We’re going to quit en masse. Because Ernie called me, he said, “Bruce, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do those things.” I said, “Just think about it, that’s a nothing. So they have to walk 20 yards more.” I said, “Isn’t that foolish that some grown man would come up and tell you, I’m going to quit if I can’t have this parking place right here.”

The most moving part of the entire program, for me, has been the way in which the workers’ lives have transformed as their working environment has transformed:

Rick Madrid
I just hate to see the plant close– oh, that just hurts me. End of an era. It changed my life from being depressed, bored– and like my son said, it changed my attitude. It changed me all for the better. I really hate to see it go.

If I understand the bit of economics I know well, industrial production is the only kind of production that drags poor countries into wealth, and the only kind of employment that is able to create a large and wealthy middle class. Service industry and agriculture can’t do it, neither of the two can. Industry has two very bad side-effects on cities, localised pollution and sprawl, but there must be a way to have one’s cake and eat it too. Finally, one of my favourite things about Germany is that it is one of the rare developed countries that hasn’t dismantled its own industry in the 1980s and 1990s: Germany is still an industrial force, and it has been one of the pillars of its continued economic success. One simple effect of this focus on production is that everything you find around you in Germany, in terms of stuff, is well made, carefully made. The other consequence is that everyone around you knows how to make things. And not just so that it kinda works. People know how to do things well. Like Rick Madrid, I find that personally moving.

But ANYWAY, I didn’t want to write about industry, I wanted to write about democracy, the West and the East. But hopefully the transcript has spoken for itself.

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One thought on “NUMMI and Japanese management

  1. Bob Savage says:

    I think you are right to link the experience of these workers and “democracy”. Personally, I have often thought that the biggest impediment to political empowerment here in the USA is that the experience most people have of contributing to collective decision making is a quadrennial ritual, instead of an everyday occurrence (of the sort you describe).

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