really, does quantity ever win?

April 3, 2010

lessons from NUMMI

i just spent the last hour running (i know, big surprise, right?) and listening to a podcast about nummi. nummi is — or was — an auto manufacturing plant that contained a joint venture between GM and toyota. the plant brought japanese manufacturing techniques — as well as concepts of teamwork and quality OVER quantity — to the american assembly line. what sounds incredibly simple (and . . . obvious?) started a mini-revolution that not only greatly improved the efficiency and success of its manufacturing, but also the lives of its workers.

unfortunately, these gains spread to the rest of the company too late in the game to save the ailing american auto industry, and the GM/toyota plant closed its doors on april 1.

i didn’t come across this story randomly — it was featured on this week’s this american life. before i pressed play, i contemplated listening to something else instead. cars — and business — aren’t exactly things that i am inherently attracted to.

but this tale turned out to be a meaningful one for me and imparted several valuable lessons — many consistent with things i’ve been thinking about lately. i definitely recommend listening to the podcast (you can stream it here if you are feeling contemplative and have some free time this weekend. if not, here were the highlights i thought were really illustrated beautifully by the segment:

finding focus and putting your all into work can be rewarding on many levels, and can even have a ripple effect towards other areas of life. the show opens up talking about how the workers at the plant prior to 1984 were basically at war with upper management.

they would drink, do drugs, and yes — even have sex on the job (!). absenteeism was rampant — people would just take random days off to the point where the assembly lines couldn’t even run. in part because they were not treated well or respected, workers were bitter and morale was extremely low. some disguntled employees would even damage cars purposefully. one now-retired, older worker talks about how miserable it was, and how he would come to work with a thermos filled with a screwdriver to start every day.

it goes without saying that the plant at that time ran poorly and produced crap. furthermore, despite all of these ‘freedoms’, many of the workers were very unhappy.

eventually, a changeover occurred. GM was looking to partner with toyota, and toyota was looking to learn about american work practices in preparation for potentially taking some of their operations overseas — and the idea of a collaborative factory was born. the plant shut down completely and reopened with a new style, japanese workers placed alongside american.

the new operation featured smaller teams, with lots of room for worker input and innovation from the bottom up. perhaps more importantly, the american workers were exposed to their japanese equivalents who seemed to (gasp!) care about what they were doing. little by litte, they began adapting these new practices — perhaps sort of trying them out.

much to their surprise, things improved on so many levels. efficiency and quality increased, everyone was happier, and the formerly screwdriver-sipping worker interviewed on the show basically said he found meaning in his life again. instead of hatred for the company, under the new system the employees took true pride in their work — and even found joy in it.

quality over quantity. the old american practice was to NEVER STOP THE LINE, no matter what problems occurred. this resulted in an amazing (and horrifying) array of messed up vehicles which later had to be fixed — a much bigger deal (and potentially dangerous one) than pausing things before parts got piled upon parts, encasing errors in a cage of metal.

in japan, the line stopped all the time, in part because the managers trusted in the factory workers (the american managers were worried that letting the line pause would lead to ‘laziness’ and that the workers would stop it unnecessarily because they didn’t want to work!). as a result, their quality was many times better AND time was saved in the end.

such a simple concept — quality over quantity — but really, are there any areas of life where quantity really wins out? i honestly can’t think of any. but it’s so easy to get caught in the mindset of more = better. not if it’s crap!

[as an aside, i saw huge parallels between discussions of the factory line and car quality to the practice of medicine and our current health care system. but that’s a whole other post . . . ]

teamwork and kindness matter. when workers were in huge teams without any sense of real collaborative purpose, morale was low and production quality right there with it. americans marveled at seeing japanese workers actually volunteer to help a group that was faltering — imagine that! but in following their example, it sounds like the entire experience of building a car was transformed.

a collegial rather than adversarial relationship between bosses and employees mattered, too — in the japanese system, there was no hierarchical parking lot system and all levels dined in the same cafeteria. this general air of respect had an enormous effect on the collective experience — as well as the overall success of the plant.

so, i took a lot from my AM run today! who would have thought that learning about a car factory would be so . . . enlightening? thanks, ira glass . . . you haven’t let me down yet.

karmic forces at work?
i am happy to say that marching into work with the dual goals i mentioned yesterday was a huge success. however, perhaps some karmic forces were at work because it was one of the slowest, easiest nights i’ve ever had in the ED! it was as if i was being worked in slowly.

today i will bring the same aims and intentions to my 12 hour shift. i am anticipating greater challenges but i feel ready for them!

countdown: 48
yesterday’s shout-out of gratitude went to one of life’s small (but important pleasures):


coffee, thank you for being there when i need you. and, for tasting so delicious.



workout: 5 miles on the TM (0.5% incline), speeds 9:13/mi to 8:41/mi (i changed speed every 2 songs), + weights
– 2 x 12 pushups
– 2 x 12 squats with tricep pres
– 2 x 12 lat pulldowns (55 lb)
– 2 x 12 walking double lunges (8 lb)
– 2 x 10 tricep cable press (15 lbs)
– 2 x 15 ball plank-to-tuck/pikes

lunchtime gourmet: because of my 6p – 2a shifts this week, i got in the habit of sort of switching lunch with dinner. it’s easier to eat a sandwich while writing a note and looking up labs than it is to heat up and eat a plate of pasta. plus, cooking ‘dinner’ in the afternoon means that i can leave something good in the fridge for josh (yes, i am a 1950s housewise — except not). hence, yesterday’s lunch:

peppery shrimp and arugula pasta from april 2010 cooking light
next week my new cooking focus begins — can’t wait to delve into ED&BV and super natural cooking!

reading: an article on the assessment and management of gastroenteritis.


  • Reply Jenny March 10, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    American coffee is very weak, almost like tea, that is what makes it so bad to most Europeans. It is also not always fresh and that makes it taste sour. We like our coffee very strong. Regular drip coffee here is like what Starbucks calls "espresso" in color or even blacker.
    I am sure your coffee is good, though! Cortado is the Spanish version and meta-meta is Italian and it is espresso with the same amount of steamed milk, so 50-50. I&#39ll take you to Bar Italia, a tiny coffee bar here if you come by!

  • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger March 10, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    ronit: thank you for recommending that article! i just read it — very interesting. i agree that the NPR piece was definitely very pro japan and i wondered about that . . .

  • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger March 10, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    chelsea: sounds interesting! i&#39ve been interested in efficiency ever since reading cheaper by the dozen as a kid 🙂

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.