The Demise of NUMMI

A colleague of mine, Kris Niles, sent me this long (59 minute), but compelling audio from “This American Life”, on the demise of the Fremont NUMMI auto plant. The GM Fremont plant was shutdown in 1982, restarted as GM/Toyota NUMMI in 1984, adopted the agile “Toyota Production System” through a massive education program (they flew all NUMMI plant personnel to Japan, where Toyota trained them), and almost immediately started producing high quality cars.

This is not a story of failing to change; it is a story of changing too slowly.  GM could not replicate the learning it obtained from NUMMI fast enough. Its first attempt to replicate NUMMI, by converting its Van Nuys plant to Toyota Production System (without retraining everyone), failed miserably. Resentful workers seeing that seniority was no longer valued, rebelled. Managers with cushy privileges and familiar control, pushed back.  GM closed Van Nuys and laid everyone off.

GM President Roger Smith finally started to seriously implement Toyota Production System in 1993, and gradually spread it throughout GM, but it took over a decade: too long to forestall bankruptcy. Some quotes from the piece: “Steering the Titanic with a canoe paddle.”  “If you take 30 years to figure it out, you’re going to get run over. And they got run over.”

GM’s market share dwindled and ultimately it fell to bankruptcy in 2009. NUMMI was abandoned by GM to its partner Toyota. NUMMI was shutdown on April 1, just a couple of days ago, by Toyota.

This episode of This American Life describes cultural issues with eerie familiarity: resistance to agile methods from both individuals and managers. Folks that have comfortable, familiar roles in dysfunctional systems they don’t want to give up.

We speak like GM when we postpone automated testing; when we allow ourselves to create new technical debt “because we need to ship features faster”; when we assert it is “impossible” to release new features to the outside world every Sprint; when we fail to sideline toxic employees; when we discourage a team from self-organizing to tackle problems; when we complain about having to interact more with lesser teammates to help them go faster; when we allow impediments to persist; when we fail to train everyone in agile methods “because they aren’t managers”; and when we fail to “stop the line immediately” to address and fix process problems. If you are an agile company, you may think these problems are going away, but I bet you aren’t making them go away fast enough.

If you are piloting the Titanic, don’t steer it with a canoe paddle.

The link:

One response to “The Demise of NUMMI”

  1. Elijah Keyes Avatar
    Elijah Keyes

    Great episode. Thanks for the link

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