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Transforming Industrial Organizations in an Integrated World Economy

Updated on July 2, 2017
UAW President, Ron Gettelfinger and GM CEO Rick Wagoner
UAW President, Ron Gettelfinger and GM CEO Rick Wagoner
Ron Gettelfinger, UAW President
Ron Gettelfinger, UAW President

Transforming Industrial Organizations

Today many plants around the world are increasingly facing the choice of changing or dying. Sometimes the choice is not apparent until too late. Sometimes the required changes are viewed as too high a price to pay for survival. Sometimes there is insufficient knowledge within the organization of the nature and extent of the required changes. Sometimes the needed changes are blocked by what behavioral scientists call trained incapacity, that is, outmoded beliefs, practices, habits,agreements, policies, vested interests and legal requirements.

The "scientific" management principles of Frederick Taylor--narrow, repetitive job assignments and close supervision to motivate individual workers to work harder--impede progress in many factories where management is unaware of Deming's mantra "teamwork to improve the process." Overcoming such barriers to transforming inefficient, uncompetitive industrial plants and organizations is essential to industrial well-being and even survival in every country in today's increasingly competitive world.

The spotlight is currently in 2009 on the UAW and the Big Three American auto companies, GM, Ford and Chrysler, which have steadily lost market share to foreign competitors and are currently on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of several factors one of which is inefficiencies in their production processes. There is fairly widespread agreement today on the model for an effective manufacturing organization described by such terms as--






Work teams

Statistical quality control

Just in time and

Labor-management cooperation and job security

The details vary from industry to industry and among management theorists, but there are a number of widely accepted common threads. In automobile industry "lean production," a term coined by John Krafcik of Massachusetts Institute of Technology to describe the Toyota production system, is the term most commonly used to describe a state-of-the art manufacturing system.

At any rate there is a good, fairly well understood model to follow when a new plant is established. (I do not mean to suggest that the decisions and implementation are simple, even in a new plant.) However, what is lacking today is a model for transforming existing facilities, some constructed 30-40-50 years ago or even longer, and which are trammeled by outmoded beliefs, habits, customs, organization structures, management policies or union contracts and negotiated work rules or legal requirements.

Transforming old, inefficient plants (and in some cases, even relatively new but nevertheless inefficient plants) into low cost, high productivity, competitive plants is the most critical problem facing a high proportion of the world's automobile industry today. Failure to accomplish such a transformation will exact a high price on workers, managers, shareholders, plant communities and national economies.

Descriptions of successful plants and companies are easy to come by. But transformation forumlas are hard to find and implement.

American and European automobile companies have been engaged in the process of transformation for several years and will be so engaged for the forseeable future.

Success has been mixed so far, and no patent formulas are available. However, the following observations may be of interest to anyone concerned about this issue--

1. Transformation is not likely to begin until there is clear recognition of the need for change by the top management, union and government leaders. Inertia and resistance to change are great in most organizations, often greatest in the ones most successful in the past.

The need for transformation is recognized by union and management leaders in the U.S. automobile industry. And the parties have addressed the issue of increasing awareness of this need on the part of plant level union and management leaders in a number of ways, for example, by establishing a Paid Educational Leave Program in which authorities on the world automobile industry from M.I.T., University of Michigan and Wayne State University conduct seminars for union-management groups from each plant. The program also includes a week in Washington, D.C., where participants hear from Congressmen from both parties as well as various regulatory and administrative officials. By the end of the program, the plant-level managers and union officials gain a realistic view of the U.S. and world automobile industry. A perhaps an even more basic approach is one of providing a continual flow of information about the business to employees and union leaders.

2. Once the need for change is recognized, the effort to develop a consensus on the nature and extent of change can begin. This is likely to be a long and difficult process. Managers cling tenaciously to outmoded organization structures and cherished perquisites, in part because traditional compensation systems reward reward managers based on the size of their organizations--in terms of the number of people, assets and budgets. Traditional compensation systems thus do not provide incentives for transformation into a lean organization. Union leaders, fearful of not being re-elected, are reluctant to agree to needed changes in work rules. Labor agreements rendered obsolete by new technology and modern behavioral science concepts are very hard to change. Government bureaucrats mindlessly insist on perpetuating obsolete regulations. A high order of management and union leadership is required to develop and focus the energy and consensus required to transform an industrial organization.

3. Transformation is easier in an organization where employees in a plant are represented by a single union than where the workforce is fractionated by multiple, ideologically based unions or compartmentalized by multiple, occupationally based unions. The most successful manufacturing organizations today are where the job classifications are few and broad and work teams accomplish their tasks in ways which often do not conform to traditional occupational demarcations.

4. Transformation is easier in organizations where union and management respect each other and have and effective relationship embodying a tradition of cooperation on areas of mutual concern such as health and safety, quality and productivity. Such cooperation does not preclude vigorous collective bargaining on wages, employee benefits and working conditions. At the critical shop floor level it is not easy to separate the parties' collective bargaining roles from the areas of mutual interest. The issues tend to be inter-related and intertwined. Possibly the best that can be hoped for is a balanced concern in the mind of each party, both for collective bargaining needs and values and for other considerations vital to the survival and prosperity of the organization, e.g., the need to achieve competitive product quality and costs. Transformation is difficult or impossible without trust and effective communication. An expectation of absence of conflict is unrealistic, but a relationship characterized by continual conflict and adversarialism creates an environment where transformation is difficult or impossible. Successful manufacturing organizations tend to be characterized by a high degree of labor-management cooperation.

5. Demonstration projects can be utilized to create models while reducing perceived risks to union, management employees which may be associated with proposed changes. Two examples of such projects in General Motors are the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota and the creation of Saturn Corporation as a separate and distinct entity in General Motors U.S. operations. Both of these plants, one managed by Toyota and the other by GM, with a lot of input from the UAW, have departed significantly from the traditional U.S. automobile industry labor-management relations model, and there is a high degree of labor-management cooperation in both plants. Although both of these ventures have been successful, there has been less "diffusion" than hoped to pre-existing plants. Recently, the process of adopting "lean" methods from NUMMI at other GM plants has accelerated, but is still proceeding more slowly than demanded by the highly competitive U.S. motor vehicle market. Great progress in improving efficiency has also been made in many of Ford's plants in the U.S., apparently without greatly modifying traditional auto industry agreements.

In Europe General Motors is implementing lean production models in new assembly plants in Eisenach (former East Germany) and Szent Gottard, Hungary, and it is engaged in high priority transformation efforts at its existing plants throughout the world. Differing industrial relations, cultural and legal environments throughout the European Community complicate the process, especially in older plants where traditions are strong and hard to change.

[Adapted from a presentation to a United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva, October 7, 1992 by the author of this article.]

Corvette Assembly Line
Corvette Assembly Line
Early Ford Assembly Plant
Early Ford Assembly Plant

W. Edwards Deming 1

W.Edwards Deming-2

Deming 3


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    • Deccan Sojourn profile image

      Deccan Sojourn 

      8 years ago

      Good, Keep it up it was a useful visit. Visit: deccansojourn (India’s leading online gift portal).

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      8 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Rebecca Henderson's Research on Why Corporations Find it Difficult to Change

      Rebecca Henderson co-directs the Business and Environment Initiative at HBS

      One part of the answer is the phenomenon of “overload”—essentially, the failure to spend time planning for the future because one is so focused on urgent needs of the present. The dangers of such short-term thinking are also a theme of her research.

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      In my experience there is much truth in what you say. On the other hand, changing a system which for nearly a century was based on Taylorist principles and which is embedded in practices, union grievance settlements and agreements is a major task. When I left the industry in 1994 a fair amount had been accomplished but much more was left to be done.

    • LeanMan profile image


      9 years ago from At the Gemba

      I have significant experience of working with most of the major car manufacturers, they all preach lean principles but quite frankly they are driven by only one real principle money, because of this they fail to see the long term big picture and often make short term decisions to make more money today which then bites them very hard the following year..

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      11 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      True CWB. The stakes are high for auto worders, Michigan and the country.

      Tnx, all, for your comments.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Well executed Hub Ralph. Change will come. If we don't initiate the change and get it right it will come regardless. 20/20 hindsight is of no use to the future; neither are people addicted to instant gratification.

    • Melissa G profile image

      Melissa G 

      11 years ago from Tempe, AZ

      Nicely done, Ralph. Unfortunately, by the time corporations recognize the need to change, they're often well on their way to bankruptcy. It would be nice if they demonstrated the foresight and responsibility to invest surplus earnings from profitable years into these types of transformation, rather than adding to the ridiculous sums of money designated for their top execs.

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      11 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      It is so expensive to change over an entire plant and retrain. We had a machinist come from Bosnia during the war and tried to find him a job locally. The machines here were inches and though there was a big push to get companies to convert to metric, the costs were almost prohibitive. To change out each machine, well, they simply couldn't afford it. It's definitely tougher for industry to change than a service industry! Thanks for your information.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      11 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      You are absolutely right that meaningful change doesn't happen until all the traditional 'sides' have signed up to the need to transform together. And even then, it doesn't happen automatically. The process needs steering and monitoring every step of the way.

    • eovery profile image


      11 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      This will be interesting watching the auto industry over the next year or two.

      Keep on Hubbing!

    • profile image

      Leta S 

      11 years ago

      Yeah, Ralph. This is my big beef with corporations in general. They are so stupid! And exist on outdated methods and means. It's painful. Flexible and non heirarchical would do wonders in any organization, I believe.

      I think when people get entrenched in any paradigm, and can't see themselves out, there is bound to be long term trouble.


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