This American Life Explores Changes in US Auto Industry Through GM/Toyota Joint Venture

Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you feel really good about what you do.  As Idaho’s Manufacturing Extension Partner, TechHelp has spent years helping Idaho companies learn and implement continuous improvement methodologies, including Lean Manufacturing, that help them become more competitive. We have seen first hand how Lean, Six Sigma, TWI, quality initiatives and more can transform a company and workforce. On August 11, TechHelp’s E3 Operational Excellence Team will kick off a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Public Workshop Series in Nampa that will give Idaho companies and workers the opportunity to learn about and adopt this powerful process improvement system.

The NPR Radio Show (& podcast), This American Life,  captured the power and potential of continuous improvement in a recently updated story  of how an old GM car plant in Fremont California might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., aka NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of the Toyota Production System or Lean (inspired by the Godfather of Lean,  W Edwards Demming who helped the Japanese revamp their industrial base after WWII) ; how it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM . The story explains why GM didn’t learn the lessons and apply them company-wide — until it was too late.

NUMMI 2015

A car plant in Fremont California that might have saved the U.S. car industry.

 Today, GM cars still don’t have the quality of Japanese built autos. GM went bankrupt after the economic meltdown of 2008 and in 2010 NUMMI was closed, sending thousands of car workers looking for jobs. (Thankfully, the Fremont plant is now building Teslas.)

In this hour-long story, which TAL reported in 2010, NPR Automotive Correspondent Frank Langfitt tells the story of NUMMI and why GM—and the rest of the American car business—wasn’t able to learn from it more quickly.

Listen to the full story of NUMMI at This American Life

Read the transcript of the TAL story here

Take Aways

This is the kind of story that can make you feel good about the services we provide at TechHelp.  We help Idaho manufacturers make just the kind of transition that was made at the Fremont plant. As Deming once said, “The aim proposed here for any organization is for everybody to gain – stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, the environment – over the long term.”

  • Inspiring how US workers from the old Fremont plant responded so positively to the Toyota Production System (Lean Manufacturing). It proved what the Godfather of Lean, Deming,  said about opportunities for improvement being 94% process and only 6% special (workers).
  • Inspiring how US workers in the new NUMMI plant in Fremont bought into Lean, took pride in their work and began building the best cars in the US.
  • Sad that it was so difficult for the rest of GM (management & union) to more quickly accept and adopt the principles proven at NUMMI.
  • Heartening that eventually, GM and the rest of the US auto industry began to believe in and adopt the principles of Lean.
  • Sad that the Fremont NUMMI plant closed in 2010 costing 4,500 workers their jobs.
  • Wonderful that Tesla probably hired back some of those workers when it began producing cars at the old Fremont plant.
  • Sad that Toyota tried to grow too fast and sacrificed quality for production numbers resulting in the company’s recent quality problems and recalls.