Back in 2007, The Onion ran an article on the public radio program This American Life titled This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence. I guess with time on their hands, Ira Glass & Co. has moved on to other topics, and in particular the auto industry. They had a story this past week on NUMMI. (Click here to hear the story.) NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Inc, a joint venture between GM and Toyota in Fremont, California. It was a chance for Toyota to learn how to work with American employees and for GM to learn the Toyota Production System. For Toyota, this worked great. It was the launching pad for Georgetown and all of their other plants in North America. For GM, not so much. The lessons of NUMMI never quite made it out of Fremont.
GM pulled out of NUMMI when they went through bankruptcy. Toyota decided not to go it alone as it reevaluated it network of plants during the recession. (To put things in perspective, NUMMI has been the only auto plant on the West Coast since the early ’90s. It is thus a long way from the locus of the industry in the Midwest.) The plant closes this Thursday.
The piece is too long to properly summarize but here is the basic outline:
Act One: The rise of NUMMI, or how one of the worst auto plants in America started producing some of its best cars, thanks to lessons learned from the Toyota production system. (25 1/2 minutes)
Act Two: Why did it take so many years for GM to begin implementing the lessons of NUMMI across the company? NPR Automotive Correspondent Frank Langfitt continues his story. (26 minutes)
It’s a time investment to listen to it all but it’s worth it. The first part provides a stunning contrast between what an old school car plant was like and how the Toyota production system differs. The second part is a little disheartening as you realize that GM let things slip through their fingers. If you want more on the rise and fall of the US auto industry, you should also check out Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster by Paul Ingrassia.