Like many folks who drive Volvos, I listen to This American Life every weekend.  This past weekend, I was treated to a story about NUMMI, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota in the mid-80s, designed to bring Japanese style manufacturing to the American auto industry.  To say it was interesting is an understatement.  It’s hard to summarize, but here’s the tagline from the website:

Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: how it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved.  Frank Langfitt explains why GM didn’t learn the lessons – until it was too late.

Regular readers of my blog know that I tend to see shades of school turnaround everywhere I look.  In this case, however, the patterns smack you in the face.  Emerging world leaders outpacing the US.  A heavily unionized industry.    A system built for the industrial age struggling to keep pace with a new era.  A heavily “siloed” infrastructure with little ability to scale things that work.  Set aside an hour to listen, I promise you won’t regret it.

Quick caveat: I do not mean to suggest that making cars is anything like educating children.  That misses the point completely.  What the NUMMI piece is really about is change management.  The first factory in which the NUMMI system was implemented was a huge success.  Stakeholders engaged in a change process.  They visited Japan to watch the successful system in action.  All workers had to reapply for their jobs once the system was adopted.  And the leadership realized that the change in factory design and infrastructure would only work if there was a coincident change in operational culture.  The results were highly successful.

Other factory managers that subsequently tried to implement the NUMMI model struggled to change.  They didn’t engage in a change management process.  Workers did not have to reapply for their jobs, there were no trips to Japan, and new processes were introduced without the requisite cultural changes.

Long story short: there are no shortcuts in turnaround.  There is no prepackaged solution, no shiny product to buy, no “amazing time-saver.”  The only thing that works when turning around a failing institution is to recognize that better results are possible, create a team that only includes individuals who agree that change is possible, and execute every day on the strategies that lead to better results – in the schools context, effective teaching. Sounds simple enough, but it’s anything but.

Side note: This is why I’m so skeptical of the “transformation” model achieving real results.  It reads like a checklist of things that haven’t worked in the past.  There’s no magic number of people who should be reassigned from a failing school … that also misses the point.  The point is that teachers and leadership should have to affirmatively – and mutually – agree to be a part of change; nobody is owed a role.


2 Responses to NUMMI

  1. john thompson says:

    I thought most of the report made a more persuasive case for the transformation model. Remember the turning point was letting American workers see how empowered Japanesse workers were, as illustrated by something as simple by being able to shut down the assembly line.

    The turnaround model has the greatest risk inherent in it. It has the risk that power will go to the heads of management.

    There was an exception, though, and that may be what youre getting at. The successful transformation model was not replicated in factories where workers weren’t convinced that changes had to occur. So, there has to be aspects (or one aspect) of the turnaround model, it could be argued. In the long run, though, its clearly not replicable at scale.

    But the fundamental problem, aside from human nature, was letting things get so bad and so alienated before trying change. Think of how much better we’d be doing if we hadn’t wasted so much on the failed NCLB accountablity system. And that should be the most obvious parallel between the numbers-driven, square peg, dehumanizing deadend of numbers driven accountability between the two sectors.

    Also, remember that Walter Ruether and the AFL-CIO had plans that would have countered the de-industrialization of America by updating the New Deal safety net framework, taking the fear out of modernization. And let’s not forget that the overnight deindustrialization of much of urban America, by wiping out hope and wrecking families, was the single biggest cause of the failure of urban schools.

  2. And let’s not forget that the overnight deindustrialization of much of urban America, by wiping out hope and wrecking families, was the single biggest cause of the failure of urban schools.


    Mr. Thompson, has Justin responsed to this? I would wonder what he intends to accomplish in the City of Wilmington, Delaware with our chronically low-performing elementary schools in impoverished neighborhoods which ‘have been let go fallow’ through the past decade of choice and charter skimming the cream of the crop and leaving behind the kids whose parents aren’t involved.

    Justin, your biggest problem here in Delaware will be to prove that your transformation models includes a robust approach to boosting the social resources in these communities your new “improvement zone school district” encompass.

    We have seen these schools continue to suffer under a state political environment that advocated a Neighborhood Schools Act in 2000 yet ignored the Wilmington Neighborhood School Plan submitted at the time.

    Have you read through that plan, Justin? You are coming into our city and you are determined to succeed in making guinea pigs out of our challenging minority population.

    I would suggest that you bein to meet with the city community ASAP and explain what you intend to do. There are ongong meetings in the city about what is going on and Mass Insight needs to partner with community leadership and not slink around in bureaucratic or corporate headquarters behind everyone’s back.

    Come to the meetings, Justin. Show your hand. You will need the community to buy-in or you will fail in your goal. Parents and community in high poverty areas aren’t something you can ignore if you think you will lift up their kids. It is one wholistic circumstance and Delaware wonders if you are up to snuff. They are waiting for your input, Justin. What is taking you so long to show up?

    Every Sunday there are opportunities for you to get with the city audience and explain your intentions. To bein to partner now is only in your best interest. The state offices in Dover can’t help you reach these people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: