A recent article from Inside Bay Area waxes eloquently about the Toyota Production System and its application at NUMMI, especially with regard to worker safety. It explains ‘muda’ and ‘kaizen’ and goes on and on about the participative culture of the place and follows a plant worker named Edwin San Pedro in his safety quest.
" His focus on safety is part of the "Toyota Production System" at the Fremont plant. The so-called ‘lean manufacturing’ system uses Japanese terms and culture to emphasize worker protection and efficiency in building cars."
It all sounds good and it would be easy to cite this article and the safety performance at NUMMI as further evidence of the superiority of the Toyota System, only its not true. GM blows all comers out of the water when it comes to worker safety – especially Toyota. GM’s lost work days per 100 employees last year was .26. Toyota’s performance (3.3) was worse than Chrysler (1.51) and Ford(3.0). Only Honda, at 4.6 was worse than Toyota among the major auto makers.
The same statistics comparing GM and Toyota hold true when safety is measured by the number of recordable injuries per 100 employees. GM at 3.6 is five times better than Toyota, who came in at 18.4. While Toyota outperforms GM according to most other benchmarks – cost, quality, labor efficiency – GM not only beats Toyota in worker safety, they dominate them.
The NUMMI case is interesting. If the Toyota Production System in its NUMMI application is driving a good safety record, Toyota sure hasn’t figured out how to use it to achieve those ends at its other plants. It seems much more apparent that the safety improvements at NUMMI came from the GM side of the joint venture. It also seems Toyota has been as unable to learn safety from GM at NUMMI as GM has been to learn quality and cost reduction efforts from Toyota.
This represents a startling reversal of the stereotypical images of the two companies. Happy, people focused Toyota lagging dismally behind cold, heartless, ‘by the numbers’ GM in the area of worker safety – who’d a guessed? It leads to a number of interesting questions. The two most important ones are why the Toyota Production System has not generated even marginal safety results. The other is how GM can perform with such incredible capability in safety, yet so dismally in other areas.
I can only assume that Toyota’s safety failure reflects management priorities and the focus of their kaizen efforts. Whatever the reason, it belies the notion that Toyota is driven by some altruistic concern for people that is lacking in American companies. I have often argued with those in the lean community that the Toyota Production System is not built around a warm and fuzzy pillar of respect for people. It is first, last and in the middle cost reduction driven. Stable employment and employee involvement and empowerment are simply effective cost reduction tools – not social causes. The safety statistics support that point of view. Toyota simply does not see safety as a significant cost driver. It does not represent enough ‘muda’ to make the radar screen. The human implications of poor safety performance do not seem to be a significant issue at Toyota.
GM’s success is just as odd. I suspect it reflects the fact that GM is fully capable of doing whatever it sets its massive mind to, but 80 years of Sloan management have created a level of polarization between the company and the workers (by that I mean the UAW, who does all of the thinking for GM workers) that it is virtually impossible to effect much of anything. Stuck in the convoluted Sloan model, most cost reductions pose a threat to the workers, rendering cooperation impossible. Safety, however, saves money without reducing headcount and it may well be about the only area in which GM and the UAW can work together.
I could not help but to be impressed by the energetic presence of a fairly senior GM safety staffer at the recent Lean/Six Sigma Conference in Las Vegas. His reason for being their was to learn how to better deploy the principles of lean in further improvement of GM’s safety performance. That’s a pretty enlightened image of GM in my mind.
Regardless of the reasons, and whether my theories regarding Toyota and GM have merit, the data means that a higher level of thinking is demanded of all of us. Praising all things Toyota and slamming everything about GM is intellectual shabbiness. Both are complicated companies with complicated management systems. On balance, Toyota has clearly been the better managed company, but they do not do everything to perfection. GM has managed its way into a pretty grim situation, but they have not failed at everything.
NUMMI, it seems, is not just another Toyota success story. The magic of NUMMI, I believe, is that it is the place where the best of Toyota and GM have come together – more Toyota than GM to be sure – but it seems to represent what both GM and Toyota should strive to become. This hybrid lean is the real objective of manufacturing. I believe the data means we all have to put our thinking caps on.