Form vs. Function of Teams

General Motors has had a unique opportunity through its joint venture with Toyota at the NUMMI plant to learn the Toyota Production System firsthand. In recent years, they have been doing quite well in applying TPS. But that was not always the case.

In the early stages of the joint venture, GM tried to carbon-copy TPS throughout the organization. Among the things GM copied was the work group structure, which consists of small work groups of four to eight people that use an hourly team leader to act in a support and coordination role for the group. The hourly team leader does not perform a manual job unless someone is missing. About three or four work groups report to the first-line supervisor, called the group leader, a salaried position. These two leadership roles are central to solving problems and implementing continuous improvements (kaizen).

At GM the team leaders in particular were in a new role. They added a layer on the organizational chart, so their existence needed to be justified. So at some point an executive wanted to know how the groups were performing. GM conducted a time study to measure how the GM team leaders were using their time throughout the company as well as a parallel study for NUMMI team leaders. The overarching difference between GM and NUMMI team leaders is that GM team leaders didn’t really understand their role. In fact, only 52% of the time the GM team leaders were doing anything that you could regard as work, while NUMMI team leaders were actively supporting the assembly line workers and spent 90% of their time doing work on the shop floor. Some of the things the NUMMI team leaders were actively doing:

  • 21% of their time was spent filling in for workers who were absent or on vacation. GM team leaders did this 1.5% of the time.
  • 10% of their time was spent ensuring a smooth flow of parts to the line. GM team leaders were at 3%.
  • 7% of their time was spent actively communicating job-related information. This was virtually absent at GM.
  • 5% of their time was spent observing the team working, in order to anticipate problems. This did not happen at all at GM.

Basically, GM team leaders focused on emergency relief of workers (e.g., so workers could use the restroom) and quality inspection and repair. When there were no immediate problems and no fires to put out, they went to a back room for a break. What GM was lacking was obvious: it did not have the Toyota Production System or the supporting culture. It merely copied and appended the work group structure onto traditional mass-production plants. The lesson was clear: don’t implement work teams before you do the hard work of implementing the system and culture to support them.