My name is Jean Tabaka.

I live in an Agile and Lean world where we take a “stop the line” mentality for granted.  I am encouraged to give my observations and recommendations about continuous improvement. I’ve been learning to create my own reality, to continue learning and to find my strengths in cross-functional work. I passionately read about, talk about, and practice Agile and Lean principles. These principles continually inform how I can create benefit for my company and how I derive benefit from my company.

I’m the lucky Tabaka.

Army JimMy father, Jim Tabaka, was a life-time white collar worker for GM, starting fresh out of University of Illinois with his mechanical engineering degree.  He worked 12 hour days, on his feet the entire time, walking the plant floor, making sure cars kept coming off the line at all costs. He retired at age 55 with a great pension and unbelievable health benefits.

Tim TabakaMy brother Tim Tabaka is a retired GM blue collar autoworker. Well, retired is the euphemism for, “Would you please leave early so that we can bring in a younger, less experienced, cheaper workforce?”  During his time at GM he worked any shift he was told to work. He even moved to a different, older plant. Why? He needed the job and they wanted to replace the older workforce with a cheaper, younger workforce.

My nephew, Andrew Tabaka is a current GM autoworker. He came in under-skilled and now works a night shift for a GM subsidiary building brake assemblies. Andrew is one of the people Tim trained on his way out. Andrew is 24 and this is his first job. I suspect he intends it to be his life-time job. Well.Andrew Tabaka

I’ve never worked for GM but learned to drive a stick-shift on a Chevy Corvette (yes!) And, while growing up, my dad used to take me to visit the plant where he worked in St. Louis. The acres of parking lot outside the plant were for all the cars that had rolled off the line but could not be shipped to a dealer. Too many defects.

Get the picture? We have been and are a GM family.

And I’m telling you this for a reason.

In 1984, GM and Toyota entered into the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) agreement to co-run an auto plant in Fremont CA. NUMMI made big news at the time. It took an existing, highly dysfunctional GM workforce and turned them into one of the most productive auto plants in the US. A documentary about this recently aired on Ira Glass’s “This American Life”. What a story, too fantastic to be made up: the complete turn-around of a failing GM plant to a thriving joint venture. The documentary recounts 30 disgruntled, unmotivated GM employees traveling to Japan to work with Toyota employees to learn “The Toyota Way”. It features commentary from Jeffrey Liker (author of “The Toyota Way”) John Shook (author of “ Managing to Learn”) as well GM line workers and GM management. The power punch of the Ira’s story? GM never replicated the success at the NUMMI plant.  Several theories about this failure are postulated at the end of the documentary. It is up to the listener to form their own conclusions.

Two weeks ago, as a coda to the documentary:

The Fremont NUMMI plant had its last Corolla roll off the line. NUMMI was shut down, this time for good. It was the first factory ever shut down by Toyota.

I care both personally and professionally about that darn NUMMI plant. The Ira Glass documentary about NUMMI’s turnaround and GM’s failure to replicate struck a deep chord for me. I called my brother Tim that evening to get the real scoop. I had heard him recount what his life was like in a GM plant and I wanted to hear it from him again.

The truth is the NUMMI success DID have an impact on GM outside the Fremont plant. Prior to the NUMMI conversion, life in the Oklahoma City plant where Tim worked was miserable. As in the story “Rivethead” by Ben Hamper about GM plant life in the 1970’s, alcohol abuse, absenteeism and nervous breakdowns were common place at Tim’s workplace. He lived the life documented about the Fremont plant prior to the Toyota venture.

Life with the Andon.

In the late 1980’s though, Tim told my about how things were changing, amazingly so. A “stop the line” mentality was adopted at their plant. Use of an “andon” was introduced. One tug on the andon was the alert to call over for some help; a second tug was “stop the line” we need more time to fix this. Tim was one of the people who roamed the plant floor prepared to assist when the andon was pulled once so that it wouldn’t have to be pulled again. Every station had its own andon “song”. (Apparently the “Baby Elephant” song became the bane of my brother’s existence.)

Life was so much better (the “Baby Elephant” notwithstanding). Workers were encouraged to stop the line and fix problems versus pushing cars through. Teams were brought together to offer suggestions for how to improve the work processes and the flow within the plant. Quality went way up and defects went down. Morale and motivation went up. Alcohol and drug abuse went down (this is anecdotal from my brother, not based on an actual study.) And for Tim personally, plant life improved dramatically. The new system played into his strength: being a cross-functional team member, challenged and rewarded for doing his work.

Back to the NUMMI story and what GM ultimately adopted.

NUMMIFair enough. I have my brother Tim as an example of an autoworker who benefited (well, except for the darn “Baby Elephant” team’s issues). But I also have a father who, as a GM executive was expected to tirelessly follow and communicate the GM line. It took its own deep toll on him. And I have a nephew who continues to work as a very replaceable night shift cog in a different plant in the GM machine. GM has declared bankruptcy for any number of reasons. And now, my mother’s benefits, my brother’s pension, and my nephew’s pay are in peril.

My name is Jean Tabaka, daughter of Jim Tabaka, sister of Tim Tabaka, and aunt of Andrew Tabaka. My father never benefited from Lean thinking. My brother had a wonderful brief taste of it. And my nephew is now somewhere in an odd stew of Lean and non-Lean practices.

I’m the lucky Tabaka. Lean has brought me a lot and taught me a lot in my Agile world. While Lean may be most closely affiliated with the Toyota Production System; and while it may be assumed that failure to adopt the TPS was GM’s ultimate demise, I believe the Lean lessons have continued to grow, spread, and morph as a result of both success and of failure in Lean adoptions.

GM, Toyota (yes Toyota), NUMMI, the Oklahoma City plant and others all have their stories of success and failure. Each had their approach to Lean adoption. Like Tim Tabaka and NUMMI, we have our lessons to learn from Lean in our software world. Lean is not the panacea. The TPS cannot tackle all issues. Agile is not the panacea. No one methodology can guarantee product success in all situations. Our continued belief in checking the value of our adoptions is critical. Our conviction to pay attention to failure modes as well as success is key. If you don’t believe me, ask my brother Tim.

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