Jamie Oliver and NUMMI

At first blush, these two don’t seem to be related in any way.  One is a famous British celebrity chef, the other is a soon-to-be-closed car manufacturing plant in California.




I saw the Jamie Oliver bit first.  I expected it to be a bit like that show on BBC America with the sharp little Scottish woman scurrying about telling obese Brits to stop frying their food and eat vegetarian… and admittedly getting results, but being rather nasty while she is at it.

Not at all.  Jamie has a love of food that shines through no matter how much reality TV drama they try to slather on top of it to make it more compelling.  He also appears to genuinely love people and children.  Not that children aren’t people some of the time.  I won’t argue for all of the time.  I mean… have you met any children lately?   [that’s a joke, folks.  And it certainly wasn’t directed at your kids.  Honest.]

Jamie swans about preaching real vegetables and real meat and food that is recognizable as food without looking at the picture on the box/tin/jar.  He does a live demonstration showing exactly how a chicken nugget is made [short version- take a chicken, cut off all the good meat, put the rest in a blender with enough additives and flavor enhancers to choke a horse, fry, and serve].  This is sure to turn even the most diehard fan away from manufactured foods, except in this case, it doesn’t.  The audience (local schoolchildren) want to eat the nugget after it’s fried…even after knowing what went into it.

Watch the show to draw your own conclusions.  The chicken nugget demo is in show 102 at 3:40.

Colbert’s take is here (at 3:09):




Now, skipping around a little bit, we come to the example of NUMMI.  This was the auto plant set up in the 1980’s as a joint venture between Toyota and GM to learn from each other.   Toyota was to learn how to deal with the Americans, and GM was to get access to the Toyota Production System.  At the time, Toyota had higher quality than GM, but had a much lower market share.

Well, three guesses as to who got the better end of that deal?  Toyota became the largest car manufacturer on the planet, and in spite of recent quality spill still has a pretty sterling reputation for quality.  GM filed for bankruptcy and is now only just beginning to catch up in terms of… well, everything.

For the real scoop, listen to the whole episode.  It’s not all bad… parts of GM appeared to be very receptive to change.  The team concept took hold.  Quality improved, along with job satisfaction and productivity.  The part where the line worker describes his “a-ha” moment at being allowed to shut the line down to fix a problem then and there will move you… and the bits where they describe going to car dealers just to look at the cars they had built.  Yep, I can resonate with that.  There’s a special thrill in seeing something you had a part in creating out in the world.  Seeing a whole bunch of them is even more rewarding.

Other parts are so cringeworthy it hurts to listen to them.  The section starting at 35:00:  “People now snitched on each other… They would even keep track of stuff that they had missed, because that’s what the company puts in them that the only way you could protect your job you have to keep the team strong, so there’s a weak link you’ve got to get rid of that weak link.  And I would go tell them that ‘you can’t do that.  You can’t build a case for management against your union member.’ Made me angry and disappointed that the union had gone so backwards that they had forgotten what a union meant: taking care of each other.”

Wow.  Just… wow.  You wonder what sort of chance you have at success with thinking like that going on within your four walls.  Probably not much, particularly if that example isn’t just an isolated individual but a representative sample.

It’s notable that the parts of GM that were receptive to Toyota ideas (at least at first) had already been laid off for a long time.  They were desperate, they were willing to listen.  Other plants were facing the same layoffs, but didn’t believe that it could happen to them.  They wanted to maintain the status quo.

How they are related:

I wonder what chance of success we have with controlling healthcare costs when people will eat chicken nuggets even after being shown what’s in them.  When a town is more concerned with what was said about them than what is being fed to their children at school.  When school lunch policies are formulated with a minimum of 2 breads and a cost target.  Sounds kind of like the “that’s what the union is supposed to do” thinking in the NUMMI example, doesn’t it?  With the current trajectory we’re on, do you reckon we’re GM, or Toyota?