Lessons in Interdependence from Unlikely Sources

by Cindy Walley

Recently I was listening to an episode of This American Life that told the story of a "car plant in Fremont, California, that might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.) as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: How it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved." 

To train employees on the Toyota production system, GM autoworkers were flown to a Toyota plant in Japan.  There they encountered a teamwork system of production.  The Toyota model paired line workers, allowing for greater efficiency due largely to the support each worker felt from his or her partner.  They also encouraged workers of varying management levels to work together to solve problems even allowing line workers to "stop the line" if they deemed it necessary to correct an error.

As one would expect, the GM workers were initially resistant to many of Toyota's procedures, but as they spent time building automobiles with their Toyota counterparts, they grew to see the value of interdependence and the disadvantages of the "every man for himself" structure to which they had become accustomed.  When they returned to the United States, they were able to implement some of their newfound modifications, but much of the teamwork model was an uncomfortable stretch for American manufacturing.

It is difficult to depend on (or be depended on by) each other.  If it were easy, maybe we would be reading monthly articles on how our mutual kinship and progress is overflowing into our communities and our world.