An Agile Transformation Story from 1984

Earlier this week I was listening to my normal podcasts during  my commute.  The latest podcast for This American Life was a story about the NUMMI plant.  If you aren’t familiar with the NUMMI plant, this was a joint venture between Toyota and GM opened in 1984.  Basically, Toyota wanted to start manufacturing in the US and wanted a partner for their first plant, and GM needed help making a quality small car.  So NUMMI was the result.  They took a plant that GM had recently closed and re-opened it using a lot of the same employees, but they setup the plant following the Toyota Production System.  The podcast really examines these two different styles of management and talks about the differences the team based style of work used in the Toyota Production System and the traditional command and control style management typically used in the US automotive industry.  NUMMI was very successful, however GM was not very successful at replicating this success to other facilities.  As the podcast points out, this was largely due to the cultural changes required to fully implement the team based approach and “stop the line” mentality that is key to the Toyota Product System.

Having started my career at a manufacturing facility, I was familiar with the Toyota Production System and new it shared a lot in common with agile.  However, listening to this podcast just resonated so much with a lot of the struggles when trying to transition to agile, it really made me realize just how similar these two efforts are.  Ultimately, what GM was trying to do was switch from a heavily command and control based environment where jobs were very specialized and separate (remember we were dealing with the UAW) to a team based approach where decisions were delegated down to the team level, inventory was managed in a just-in-time fashion, team members were encouraged and expected to always be thinking of ways to improve and try those out, team members (including managers) should be helping each other out, and quality should be built in from the beginning.  Sound familiar?

If you are going through or plan to go through an agile transformation, I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast.  If you have struggled through an agile transformation, you should enjoy the podcast as well and find it all too familiar.  The auto industry has struggled with this transformation for over 30 years and, as far as I know, still struggles with it today.  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret that.  On one hand, they have made progress.  In large part, they have seen that the Toyota Production System is a superior way to work.  They have successfully implemented in some instances.  These things should make similar things, like agile, an easier sell and more obvious.  I believe they also had a few more hurdles to clear in their transformations than we face in the software world.  I’m not aware of any software unions, generally speaking in software development we don’t have massive supplier networks to work with (no where near the extent the auto industry does anyway), and there aren’t physical factories that have to be redesigned and retooled (yes we have offices and those may need redesigned, but we aren’t talking assembly lines, machine tools, robots, etc).  However, the fact that they have been at this for over 30 years and still struggle with it isn’t the most uplifting thought.  Hopefully, at a minimum, we can look at this and learn some lessons.  Thanks This American Life for the great podcast!  Please go listen to it.

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