What Anecdotes Tell Us About Culture at a General Motors Plant

Sometimes the most intriguing insights about lean come not from general statements, but from anecdotes. A recent article in The New York Times Sunday magazine falls into that category.

The article profiles the devastating effect the collapse of GM is having on middle-class blacks in Michigan, for whom the automaker has been a major source of employment.

Mark Graban wrote about the article in the Lean Blog, highlighting a few passages he thought had lean relevance. I agree with his comments, and I’d like to mention some additional sections.

The article, written by Jonathan Mahler, focuses on Marvin Powell, who started working at a GM plant in Pontiac 13 years ago when he was 26 (and is now losing his job).

I am fascinated by the description of the plant at the time Powell started.

It was stressful at first. The line moved faster than he anticipated, and as a new hire who could be let go without cause during his first 90 days, he didn’t want to be the one to slow it down.

Contrast that with a well-run lean plant (Toyota), where a worker is more likely to get into trouble for NOT stopping the line if there is a problem.

But even more fascinating is this description of what I will call the plant’s extra-curricular activities:

Adjusting to the culture of the factory was a challenge, too. A practicing Christian, Powell was taken aback by what he saw taking place around him. The plant was a world of temptations unto itself, with drugs, alcohol, numbers runners, bookies and even “parking-lot girls” who would come to the plant during lunch breaks to service male workers. “Anything you can find outside the plant, you can find inside the plant,” Powell says. “You either get caught up in it, or stay apart from it.”

Even in a well-run plant, I’m sure, auto employees work hard. And everyone likes to blow off some steam. But this description goes beyond that.

Now I’ve never worked in an auto plant. I don’t know whether this kind of situation was unique to that one plant (which I doubt) or whether similar situations exist in Toyota plants (which I also doubt).

The Big Three rarely showed their workers the kind of respect for people that is a fundamental lean principle. They tended to treat workers as drones, expecting them to get the job done, with management not seeking (and even discouraging) ideas or feedback from workers. In such an environment, workers can feel unappreciated and discouraged, which can increase desire for, shall we say, diversions.

Of course, that’s largely speculation on my part. Do any of you have experience with this kind of working environment? What do you believe were the causes?


Shawn Ryan said...


I spent the better part of 5 years in domestic auto plants across the Midwest and the anecdotes you mention in your post are generally true. (My first plant had a bar in the parking lot 100 feet from the main entrance)

However to identify the behavior as a result of management may be over simplification.

You need to consider that most auto plants employ 2000-4000 hourly workers. Essentially a small city packed into an area only 4-10 blocks square. In any population that size you are bound to have a variety of miscreants and anti-social behaviors.

Amplify this behavior with the tremendous psychological stress of doing the same motion over 600 times per day, 5-6 days per week, knowing you have years more to go before you are done.

(If you want a first hand account of life on an assembly line try Rivethead by Ben Hamper which describes this repetitive life during the prime of GM.)

Finally union protection for all activity not directly detrimental to production creates an environment of acceptance that most outside of the industry would not understand.

I hope the insight helps. There are still lessons to be learned from the big three - even if they are only examples of what not to do.