• Mar 31, 2010
One of the highest-rated shows on National Public Radio is This American Life, which does deep-dives into weekly themes, exploring subject matter from different angles while always leaving the listener enriched. This past Sunday, the show spent an hour going over the Toyota/General Motors joint venture in California, the NUMMI facility that will be shutting down this week.

On the eve of its closure, TAL takes a look back at what brought about the joint venture in the first place. Things were bad at the former Fremont GM plant, so bad that the company closed the factory. Shortly after the closure, GM and Toyota decided to learn from each other and implemented the Toyota production system in a U.S. plant for the first time.

Ira Glass and Frank Langfitt turn the lens of radio upon the outcome of that move, and what it meant for the workers and industry at large. Head on over to This American Life to download the show. That is, if TAL's not already on your required listening list. Thanks to everyone for the tips!

[Source: This American Life | Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty]


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  • 36 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      This and many other D3 plants need to close. I read something very, very disturbing in Forbes Magazine today. Their Auto guy, last name is Flint i believe say that GM sells FEWER vehicles in USA to retail consumers than Honda. He means people only, non fleet buyers. Ford's consumer numbers are much closer to Nissans. And as has been pointed out so many times fleet sales are almost profitless.

      There's overcapacity out there, look at Malibu, last time i checked it had 100+ days of inventory, and it had 3K of incentives on it. If a car costs 25K, 3K would be 12% of that price. This is a huge number which the company should have been pocketing.

        • 4 Years Ago
        Honda is running 0% down lease sales here in California (nationwide?). So I guess some Honda plants need to shutter also.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Why to exclude "may" and the fact that trucks were not included. Two very significant points.

        That being said, good article.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @The Other Bob 12:45PM (3/31/2010)

        "...say that GM sells FEWER vehicles in USA to retail consumers than Honda. "

        I think you should check your numbers, I do not buy it.

        -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
        I don't know what you don't buy, the fact that the Accord is the second best seller in the US or that the Civic is also a big seller. What about the CRV?
        • 4 Years Ago
        I agree with you here. Fleet sales really hurt GM. If you're barely scraping by because of low profits (if any at all) to huge fleets, what do you do? Use cheap parts, making your cars less desirable to individual customers.

        Last week I was forced into an Impala. 25k on the car, and everything was squeaking. Why on earth would anyone want to buy one? And the Camaro is next. The rental company already had several ready to rent out, but they wanted a premium for it and I wasn't biting. You'll rarely see a hot new product or halo car as a rental from another company, but not from GM. I suspect this is why Camaro sales are so high.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @ why not the LS2LS7?

        I saw GM dealers advertise 0% for 72 months.

        Let me tell you, if you can get a nice Malibu with 3K off and a 0% financing it will be a super deal. It's like paying for Civic but getting an Accord. I would take this deal in a heartbeat.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I'm sure GM is running 0% for 72 months deals. I'm not trying to say GM hasn't run incentive deals. And lots of them! But I think the fact that Honda and Toyota are having to take steps to sell cars they've never had to take before shows that the problem isn't just GM's or the Malibu's.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Luis:
        I'm sorry to hear your Impala squeaks. You should perhaps get it looked at. My father has a two year old Impala with quite a few miles on it already and it's not squeaking, so perhaps you can get yours fixed also.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Amazing story. Makes me angry and sad about what happened... and think in the end, everyone got what they deserved.
      • 4 Years Ago
      A big blow to California's economy.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Anybody want to pitch in a dollar and re-open the place to make an "open-source" designed car? :)
      • 4 Years Ago
      Another piece of evidence which shows that bad systems trumps bad employees. People (especially managers) are so fast to yell at "bad" employees instead of doing the hard work of fixing the system and see the employees turn around. There's a lot of "you have a bad attitude" thinking in corporate america when as Toyota and W.E. Deming point out "you have a bad system."
      • 4 Years Ago
      nothing makes me want to gouge my eyes out with my car keys like the sound of Ira Glass' voice.
        • 4 Years Ago
        If you had listened you would know that Ira is barely in this story.

        Also, if more evidence is needed to convince that GMs problems was with management and not the workers, then they are just unconvincable (if that's a word).
        • 4 Years Ago
        The only thing more irritating than the sound of his voice is the maudlin and vapid content of his program.
      • 4 Years Ago
      This episode was really interesting! Learned so many things about GM and how they operate and why the failure of such a large company could happen.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It is scary to think that GM still has some combative, counterproductive cultural problems within the the company, which could cause it to devolve back to its old self. Hopefully, the TPM system is fully integrated into other factories and, more importantly, the workers.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Patrick, thanks for the info.

        There is (was?) definitely a "don't stop the line" mentality at GM final assembly plants. I'm sure this causes problems. But note that everyone, including Japanese plants make fixes at the end of the line. Some problems are better fixed at the end, some by stopping the line. The key is to make the right decisions about which things are which. And I'm not saying GM is great at making this decision, just that the answer isn't always to stop the line.

        A most notable exception is that for parts and subassemblies, it rarely makes sense to stop the line, instead you just throw out the bad ones at the end or fix them there. And note that many many quality problems are down to part and subassembly quality problems. For example, over half of recalls are because a part didn't meet spec, few are because a part wasn't bolted on correctly. A lot of the quality of the car (especially long-term) comes from subassemblies and most of these aren't better handled by stopping the line. So the quality difference in these things is frankly better explained by other aspects than the stop cord.

        A ton of domestic quality and cost changes come from going to an outsourcing model, which lowers costs and takes GM (and their mentality) out of the equation. Ask Mullaly about it for example.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Ironically, LS2, your response and others of that ilk are at the heart of the story. Given what you've said, it would not surprise me one bit if you never listened to the program. It is a pity.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I really should. I need to get the straight facts from a guy who makes unsupportable statements his thesis.

        Wasting my time having to listen for a half hour or whatever just so I can then try to pick up what's true and what follows his bias just isn't a good use of my time. Again, it'd be different if I could find a transcript.

        Here is an ersatz transcript. Same author, same story from a week ago. Surely this hour long podcast is greatly expanded though.

        http://www.wbur.org/npr/125229157
        • 4 Years Ago
        The hour long podcast goes through a few things. It first describes how the original Fremont GM truck plant had terrible behavior by the union workers -- people having sex at the plant, not showing up so mgmt had to hire people in the bar across the street, lots of grievances, etc. It then moves to when GM and Toyota struck the deal for NUMMI. The workers went to Japan and learned TPM and they loved it. The plant became tops in quality and workers were much happier. A plant in Van Nuys tried to replicate the system w/out help from Toyota but the workers and mgmt couldn't get into it, and the plant stopped. Implimentations of TPM didn't work at other plants due to the old GM mentality of never stopping the line, just fix the problems later.

        An industry analyst said it took about 10 yrs for GM to really instill TPM changes into their factories, after enough people had gone through NUMMI and realized it was better, and lots of the older people who resisted change retired or left.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wish the Governor (hint hint Jerry Brown and Arnold) convince Tesla to take over this plant and give them a huge tax break to do so. Tesla will not make the same number of cars as NUMMI did but maybe we can get someone to make batteries here too and sell to other manufacturers. We could keep some of the supply jobs and create new ones around batteries. Tesla has been shopping for a plant and I would hate to see the S model plant go to southern California. Oh the other thing, this is only going to work if the Union is not part of this. Not the I am Union bashing or anything but I hope that if Tesla did something like this workers would get options or an ownership stake in the company. Hey Tesla, Freemont is not that far from San Carlos, you should be able to get back and forth to the plant on one charge.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Great episode. I'm glad I found it. I wish more radio could be this educational.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I am going to repost what I wrote on Jaloplik a few days ago since they seem to be a few days ahread of AB on some stories:


      The show is a very fascinating listen, but honestly none of it is surprising to those of us that have been following automotive news for years and years now.

      GM's problem - above ALL else - has been the same problem that the rest of Corporate America has. Companies in this country have a US versus THEM mentality with their workers. It's always management versus factory-worker. Corporate executives versus hourly workers. White collar versus blue.

      The factory worker doesn't want to help increase production for fear of losing hours or possibly even losing his job. While management doesn't want to take help from someone "below" them because then the worker might actually think they are worth more money and that would under-cut management's authority.

      So in the end you have 2 groups competing with each other as their company circles down the drain.

      This same mentality permeates throughout our society and is a big part of why nothing can ever get done.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You either accept the problem, or you become like all the dinosaurs at GM from back in the day that helped perpetuate the issue.

        Most successful companies (no, not some short-term flash in the pan company, but long-term), and they almost exclusively have a team-orientated environment that doesn't pit "those guys" versus "these guys". You can place the blame all day long and not accomplish anything, or realize that if some problem keeps happening time and again, it might be a systemic problem and not an issue with one person. And this goes beyond just one company, but rather rooted in our society. As humans, I realize that we like the easy answer "it's his fault!", but the reality of life is that it's never that cut-and-dry.

        But I have to ask what your point even was concerning the "paid for 8 hrs even if they were more efficient"???

        It's clear you didn't listen to the webcast because you might (just might) have heard the typical "tricks" that both factory workers and management would play with this crap. So they finished their work early, and to do that, they did a 1/2-ass job at building these cars... but they didn't care because their job was based on one criteria... getting these cars built and out of the factory. If they were put together like sh!t and tons of extra time needed to be taken to fix them, it didn't factor into their pay one bit. But management was just as incompetent because they let this crap continue, but also because their quota was X cars per day too. X poorly built cars was still X cars so they got their bonuses. There is no chance to build a quality product like that, nor is it possible to continue to operate like that when your marketshare slides for DECADES at a time. maybe when you all alone owned 50+% of the market, but not when it's 1/2 that number and dropping fast.

        Of course I realize that you aren't going to "get" any of this so not really sure why I am bothering replying to your post.... you are going to blindly "defend" GM come hell or high water no matter what.
        • 4 Years Ago
        In the plants my father worked in (at GM), workers were still paid 8 hours if they ran their production in less time because they could work more efficiently. And this was since the late 80s.

        You also should look into South Korea's labor problems. And they're kicking butt in the auto market right now. So I'm not at all certain you've hit the problem on the head.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I heard bits of it the other day. Listening to the part about how GM failed to transfer knowledge from NUMMI to Van Nuys was telling.
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