A couple of weeks ago, the Planet Money podcast aired an episode on Studs Terkel. Recently archivists found the interview tapes that formed the basis of his 1974 book, Working.

I’ve been planning to write about one of the interviews for a couple of weeks now, but I couldn’t quite bring it into focus. Today’s Gemba Academy blog post by Jon Miller, about Toyota Exec VP Mitsuru Kawai, helped clarify my thoughts by highlighting some fundamental differences between the way GM managed its employees in the 1970s, and the way Toyota deals with them today.  

Terkel interviewed Gary Bryner (starting at 8:13 here), a line worker at the GM Vega plant in Lordstown. Around the time of this interview, GM had installed Unimate robots on the line, increasing production from 60 cars per hour to 101 cars per hour, and making it the fastest line in the world. (Note: 101 cars per hour? I’m not an industrial engineer, but that seems insanely fast. Granted that cars were simpler then and perhaps easier to assemble, but it’s hard to imagine that workers could do a good job with only 36 seconds per car.)

Terkel: Yeah. So what happened to the guys in the plant that are working there now?

Bryner: It’s a funny thing. You know, when they revamped the plant [by installing the Unimate robots], they’d try to take every movement out of the guy’s day so that he could conserve seconds and time, so they could make him more efficient, more productive. 

GM’s reason for trying to be more efficient is if they could take one second and save a second on each guy’s effort, they would over a year make a million dollars. You know, they used the stopwatches. And they say, “Look, we know from experience that it takes so many seconds to walk from here to there. We know that it takes so many seconds to shoot that screw. We know the gun turns so fast with the screw so long and the hole so deep. We know how long it takes. And that’s what that guy’s going to do.” 

By contrast, here’s how Jon Miller describes Toyota Executive VP Mitsuru Kawai’s comments about Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA):

Interviewer: In other words, TNGA is about the standardization of parts?

Kawai: No. In the first place, TNGA is a much larger effort. Simply put, it is “involvement by everyone.” 

He described a product development line in which the engine assemblers are over sixty years old. Their job is to do the work and complain, “It’s heavy! It’s difficult! It’s not error-proof!” so that the young team leaders and engineers use their brains to make the work lighter, easier and error-proof.

You can see the profound difference in approach here: at GM in the 1970s, managers and engineering experts define how, and how fast, work should be done. In Kawai’s description of TNGA, the line workers play an integral role in creating a better production process and design. 

On a deeper level, GM’s approach of entirely separating thinking (product design and production engineering) from doing (physical assembly), was disrespectful and inhumane. Here’s Bryner again, complaining to Terkel about the way their work was dictated by engineers with time-motion studies:

Bryner: Our argument has always been, “You know, that’s mechanical. That’s not human. Look, we tire. We sweat. We have hangovers. We have upset stomachs. We have feelings, emotions. And we’re not about to be placed in the category of a machine. 

Terkel: This is something new, isn’t it? The workers in the plant – they feel that they have a right to determine the nature of their work, too?

Bryner: We do now. We have some kind of pride being able to stand up to the giant, General Motors Corporation, and say, “Look, this is what I think is fair, and I’m willing to fight to show you that it’s fair. I just think they want to be able to be treated with dignity and some respect. And you know, that’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

The situation—and the expectation—at a Toyota plant today are quite different. In another interview that Jon Miller relates, Kawai expresses his joy that workers are actively engaged in designing and improving the assembly line: 

I am very happy that things are changing every day. On every walk, I notice “That diagram has changed,” or “They were able to shift that work,” or “Now the robot is doing that.” The fact that there are changes each time I visit tells me that people are doing kaizen. Everyone is trying to make good products at lower cost. This shows me that the gemba is alive. It is changing every day. It is reborn every day. I think this is the power of the gemba at Toyota.

I’ve never worked on an automobile assembly line, but I’m pretty sure that even at Toyota, it’s not like being on holiday. However, the stark difference between GM’s and Toyota’s management philosophy in the 1970s goes a long way towards explaining why the Detroit colossus was toppled by the Japanese upstart. I only hope that GM’s managerial mindset is different today.