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GM’s Disrespect for… Robots

In a few hours many of us, especially those of us with understanding wives, will be sitting down for the annual ritual of the Superbowl.  Actually wives are often very understanding with this particular game, as the commercials are often more enticing and entertaining than the game itself. 

This particular year we should focus on a commercial from GM, where they are trying yet again to resuscitate their quality image, particularly in comparison to Toyota.  Of course using a commercial to convince buyers of quality is a misjudgement in itself; experience with quality convinces buyers of quality. 

To very briefly describe the script, a line full of robots is busily making some GM vehicles (that look remarkably like GM vehicles from last year, which look remarkably like vehicles from five years ago...).  One robot drops a screw, the other robots frown at him, and the miscreant is shown the door.  He wanders through the wilderness looking for odd jobs such as the speaker at a drive-thru restaurant, looking forlornly at all the GM vehicles driving by, before finally throwing himself off a bridge.  Quite a story to tell in sixty seconds. [Update: Our friend Mark at the Lean Blog has found the video online.]

So that is supposed to show GM's new (again) commitment to quality.  Where are the people?

One of the fundamental problems of automation is the fact that machines and robots can't innovate.  The ubiquitous "lights out factory" that so many traditional manufacturing managers aspire to create can never have a continuous improvement program.  Toyota receives dozens and even hundreds of suggestions per employee per year, and they estimate that those suggestions, small and large, add several percent to their annual productivity improvements.  When was the last time you saw a robot give a suggestion?

Another fundamental aspect of lean manufacturing is "respect for people."  If by some miracle GM wakes up and realizes that manufacturing is really about people and replaces those robots with people, they are still in trouble.  Because they would still fire that person for a quality problem.  Perhaps even as minor as dropping a screw.  Who knows how many years of experience that person... errr... robot... had.  Poof!  Out the door with you!  And your fellow employees are taught to despise you for your incompetence.  You have no value!

A company that really understood lean and continuous improvement would instead surround that person with an eager team trying to figure out what process failure led to the screw being dropped.  Perhaps the person wasn't trained well, perhaps some fixture was needed.  Something.  But most likely not the fundamental competence of the person... errr... robot.   

This just proves yet again how far behind GM is, and how their management simply doesn't get it.  As one comment to our post on Ford vs. GM: Who's Ahead? put it, who cares who's ahead when they're both so far behind.  GM is focused on being number one in sales, even if it takes buying an unprofitable Malaysian automaker, when that metric means absolutely nothing without profits.

Perhaps if GM had spent that $5.2 million on lean training they could have really improved their quality. 

Enjoy the Superbowl.

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26 Responses to "GM’s Disrespect for… Robots"

  • Brian Moore
    3 February 2007 - 6:51 pm

    Nicely put. This really captures the deep problems at GM and Ford.

  • Mark Graban
    3 February 2007 - 8:03 pm

    Great story. You’ve had quite an excellent week of blogging, Kevin. You’re on a roll!

    Imagine if the billions GM spent on technology development had been put into people development and lean. Roger Smith dreamed of the “lights out factory” in the 1980’s and we’ve never come close. Wrong vision.

    As for firing people as a response to quality problems… that’s what healthcare is doing mostly now. Any problem MUST be the fault of a careless individual. We’re trying to help folks in healthcare understand that they have systemic problems that need systemic fixes. I’m writing about that a lot over at my Lean Blog.

  • Mark Graban
    3 February 2007 - 8:10 pm

    After actually viewing the ad twice, I’m dumbfounded. It’s depressing. For one, the ad is inaccurate, it looks like a final assembly area and that’s NOT heavy robotic (as welding would be). Second, it’s just sad… how many actual human GM employees (or former employees) have been driven into bad jobs, depression, or suicide because of what GM did to them (see: Flint, Michigan). That ad is disgusting. Even as the son of a 37-year GM employee (and former GM employee, myself) who gets a nice discount on GM cars, that ad makes me want to say “to hell with them” and never buy GM again.

    If you want to accuse me of being humorless, go right ahead.

  • Barry "aka the Hillbilly"
    3 February 2007 - 8:45 pm

    Go Colts !!!!

    It is really sad that you can drive a perfectly good robot, that you paid your hard earned money for, to suicide.

    Has the management of GM lost their minds, or have I just read one too many Shigeo Shingo books ????

    I feel sorry for GM, Ford and Chrysler. God Help Them all.

    P.S> I heard that Toyota also has several commercials on tap for the Super Bowl.

    One of them runs after the GM commmercial and apparently shows a robot crawling up a River bank and walking until he comes to a brand new Toyota Plant and ….

    well I don’t want to spoil it for you guys : ) Let’s just say Toyota finds a place somewhere for our mistreated friend.

  • Ken Tolbert
    4 February 2007 - 7:04 am

    Brilliant but depressing. Thanks for ruining the Superbowl (which da Bears will win). I wonder what GM’s market research showed on this commercial. Or did they do any? Toyota or almost any other car company could clean up with a commercial showing people working together to fix a quality problem. Maybe a robot designed GM’s ad campaign. It’s that creative.

  • Joe
    4 February 2007 - 8:04 am

    Too bad the GM workers that are “in the trenches” are going to continue to pay the price for a pathetic management…..They should all be replaced…NOW!! How does it go?….”radical change”…

  • Barry "aka the Hillbilly"
    4 February 2007 - 6:33 pm

    After seeing the commercial, I do feel sorry for the robot. Someone needs to contact GM and give them a clue!

    I wonder what it would take to organize a coup of GM management?

    They had better not treat their robots too badly or they just might do it !!!

  • Jan McMaster
    4 February 2007 - 7:41 pm

    My husband was nice enough to let me watch the game and I caught that commercial as well. It sort of shocked me so I went searching and found this post which is exactly how I felt. How does this improve the perception of GM quality? How can an employee suicide be funny? I so wish Toyota would make a simple commercial based on this it could so easily explain what they’re about. I work in a small manufacturing company and after seeing this I wouldn’t touch GM with a ten foot pole. Glad your Colts won Barry.

  • Barry "aka the Hillbilly"
    5 February 2007 - 3:29 am

    Why Bother Mark,

    It’s GM, they invented Arrogance !

    I think it might be easier to teach their Robots.

    I feel sorry for that little guy now.

  • Mike
    5 February 2007 - 5:54 am

    I thought the end of the commercial showed that it was all a dream. Didn’t the robot wake up and find he was still on the line at GM at the end of the commercial? Anyway, let’s be careful not to take things too seriously or to skew the “data” to fit our own bias or agendas.

    I’ve never worked for GM, but really, has anyone there been fired for “droppiing a screw?”

  • Mark Graban
    5 February 2007 - 7:48 am

    No, they can’t get fired for dropping a screw because the people have union protection. But a lot of people in management think that the quality problems are the fault of the workers. I saw that first hand at a plant where I worked.

  • Mark Graban
    5 February 2007 - 7:55 am

    And I meant a GM plant where I worked in the ’90s.

  • ken
    5 February 2007 - 8:14 am

    The neuroscience folks agree…


    it grabs attention (our empathy) but not in a good way at all – people on the line don’t feel for each other? How they be so naive, perhaps the joys of the focus-group so favoured by politicians?

    ps. love the way the captcha is designed “to prevent robots posting”, how ironic :)

  • Kevin
    5 February 2007 - 8:28 am

    Mike- GM was using a metaphor to improve their quality image. Unfortunately comparing the supposed quality of robot assembly to Toyota. What they didn’t get is that Toyota’s quality is based on leveraging human potential… continuous improvement and the like. GM’s attempt at a metaphor in itself becomes an indicative metaphor for their own failure. The irony is not lost on most of us lean manufacturing folks.

    One person emailed me with a very observant comment: true quality at GM and Toyota, although still better at Toyota, is getting very good. Defects are approaching zero in all cases. Sometimes an ad campaign can highlight that and change perception. That’s pure defects… which doesn’t compare product style development and management effectiveness.

    It does not change the indictment of GM management, at least Wagoner when approving this commercial, that they simply don’t get the human aspects and potential of manufacturing. That will continue to be a key differentiator between GM and Toyota.

  • Pauline
    5 February 2007 - 11:15 am

    This was a sad and depressing commercial. It was like GM was totally out of touch with people who have been layed off. People who have posted said they felt sorry for the robot. Maybe that’s because most people have heard stories or actually know someone who fell on hard times by losing their job. GM and their ad agency on the other hand thought this commercial was funny. Maybe they should fire their ad agency and management and see what those people there do when they lose their jobs. It sure doesn’t make me think about quality. It makes me think of how cruel GM management’s thinking is when it comes to layoffs. Why not have a commercial where the robot does something good (fixes a defect, makes a quality recommendation, etc.) and is celebrated and rewarded. Oh yeah, that would be too fictional to beleive.

  • Pauline
    5 February 2007 - 11:21 am

    GM is so out of touch, they have this commercial on their home page at gm.com. Guess they don’t read them or don’t care about the negative reviews.

  • Yulia
    5 February 2007 - 11:49 am

    Wow, it all just made me think back to the idea of continuous improvement and thinking of every person your work with as your customer to arrive at the best quality product for the end customer from the “Toyota Way” book. It did describe how American counterparts could not get the difference Toyota systems operated on. I think GM management should read comments on this blog and pick up this book to finally get what the users want. Not only not getting the “quality” concept, they totally gave out the way they treat people = first their employees, then indirectly customers, like “robots” or replaceable items…that makes me even a more avid supporter of Hondas & Toyotas.

  • Mark Graban
    5 February 2007 - 12:15 pm

    In an article I quoted on my blog, Rick Wagoner, the CEO, personally approved the ad AND awarded $200M more in ad revenue to the firm as a reward. They’re brain dead and tone deaf.

  • Mark Graban
    5 February 2007 - 12:16 pm

    I posted a negative comment about the ad on Bob Lutz’s “fastlane” blog, but they didn’t publish it, probably as “irrelevant” to the warranty discussion they were having.

  • Barry "aka the Hillbilly"
    5 February 2007 - 7:26 pm


    GM should understand what Toyota has done by now. I mean it has been 20 years since Toyota’s Money guy pushed for the Joint Venture entry to the American Market. It turned out that it was with GM. GM has had 20 years to personally study Toyota’s methods at NUMMI.

    Then there were all of Taiichi Ono’s books as well as many by Shigeo Shingo’s and several others.

    If they don’t understand that the human element is important by now, well they must be Brain Dead as Mark said.

    If every Executive of Ford, GM and Chrysler have not put forth the effort to even read about the Toyota Production System then they deserve to go broke.

    If GM truly understood the Toyota Production system, they would not have paid good money to produce this commercial

  • Mike
    6 February 2007 - 4:41 am

    Kevin, I understood the commercial’s message, I just didn’t think it warranted so much attention. I also don’t know why Toyota and respect for people keep getting brought in to the discussion. Regardless of how GM managers think or Toyota managers behave, it wasn’t part of the message. But please, don’t confuse disagreement with misunderstanding. I repeat–it was just a commercial, but since so many of us in this world of improvement blogs are already biased against GM (or Ford or Whirlpool, etc.) it is easy to project that bias rather than be objective about their ad. Advertising has a purpose, and in today’s world that purpose is often only to create buzz around your brand. Judged by the amount of press GM has obtained from this commercial, I think they have succeeded.

  • Barry "aka the Hillbilly"
    6 February 2007 - 7:33 pm


    Thanks for your posts. At least I now know what kind of argument the managers at GM might make.

    The kind of fundamental change that GM requires needs to occur within the Craniums of their top leaders. It is apparent from their approval of this commercial that they still don’t understand the fundamental principles of the Toyota Production System.

    American Business still doesn’t generally understand Shigeo Shingo’s Zero QC principles even after 20 years !!!!

    We don’t generally have companies that are based upon respect for humanity.

    In many cases American systems are riddled with errors that create defects and customer satisfaction problems.

    Toyota understands that all humans are going to make mistakes and they created a system that does not punish people for making mistakes. Instead they encourage everyone to find mistakes as they occur and work together to error proof the system. In the end both the system and the humans are stronger.

    GM’s way as expressed in this commercial is the same old BLAME GAME that has diseased our companies for years. That system leads to discontent and does not create a product of the quality and reliability of the Toyota system.

    I would even go so far as to say the Big Three Mass Production system is a self-defeating or self-destructive system. It might even be unhealthy for the workers.

    While you might be correct in your assertion that this commercial will create BUZZ, I doubt that it will do much to improve their company’s performance. It takes a lot more work than that.

    GM is suffering from a bad reputation for Quality and they may not have enough years left to rebuild it. This commercial was a silly way to communicate their new found religion of Quality.

    Disrespect for your customers can be fatal. We will have to wait a decade or so to see if it was for one of the Big Three

  • Mark Graban
    7 February 2007 - 4:43 am

    It’s for this reason, and others, that many are now referring to them as “The Detroit Three” instead of “The Big Three.”

  • Pauline
    8 February 2007 - 8:21 am

    The American Society for Suicide Prevention has written to GM, not to reair the ad, but “GM has “no plans” to drop the robot spot, spokeswoman Ryndee Carney says. The ad currently is scheduled to air next during the Feb. 25 Academy Awards broadcast on ABC, she says.”

    Meanwhile Masterfoods, maker of Snickers, decided not reair their ad because “Some gay activists had objected, saying the response of two men in it to their accidental kiss was homophobic.” The full article is at the link below: