In this post, I’d like to talk about General Motors–a story similar to the one Pickering presents on the GE-Lynn plant from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. This period happens to be synonymous with the height of General Motors’ productivity: “in the 1960s, GM sold over half the cars in the United States” (NPR). Obviously, this success didn’t last. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the massive 2009 bailouts, estimated at approximately $50 billion for GM alone (Cook, Reuters). So this post will focus on the interim period (the mid-80s to the current day), when GM sent the American auto industry down in flames and nearly took the entire US economy with it.
My approach to Pickering will largely focus on Chapter 5, “Technology: Numerically Controlled Machine Tools,” with structural supplement from Chapter 1. I’m also bringing in a podcast (old habits die hard) from NPR’s This American Life, which focuses on the GM-Toyota NUMMI plant–a miraculous site of collaborative production. But before I jump to the 80s, let’s quickly review GE’s Pilot Program, the focus of Pickering’s study, which was initiated in late 1968:
“GE management now expected the pilots effectively to act like traditional management consultants and, moreover, to implement their own recommendations, blurring their roles into the traditional roles of foremen, planners, programmers, quality controllers, and so on. […] Management, as it were, laid down the traditional reins of control.” (Pickering 163)
After mangling union relations, management decided to demolish traditional Taylorite hierarchy in the factory, allowing workers to define their own processes and functions. The lack of structure, which proved stimulating for some, eventually led to a leadership crisis. Management refused to give any direction, resulting in the dissolution of “definitional boundaries […] obtained before and after the Pilot Program” (173.) In his introduction, Pickering correctly identifies that “the performative idiom has a phenomenological warrant” (8), and in this sense, the Pilot Program transformed the factory into a site of identity politics. Workers no longer had job titles or specified hours, leading to massive confusion and problems with morale. More importantly, workers and N/Cs came together to “constitute a composite human/nonhuman agent, a cyborg”or a “sociocyborg” if you’re a fan of Pickering’s neologisms (158-59). These dissolving definitions proved too much for the factory workers, and after years of struggle, GM formally repealed the program in 1975.
Now let’s fast-forward. It’s 1984, and Toyota offers GM an incredible deal**: a fully inclusive “training” session. At this point, GM was developing a reputation for putting out shoddy cars, while Toyota had a near-perfect production line. And GM jumped at the opportunity. Thus, the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated) plant was founded. Japanese workers (fifty of them!) flew to the US to teach American car-makers how to make cars.
The results of this experiment are both inspiring and troubling. Frank Langfitt, This American Life‘s auto correspondent, remarked that “the numbers coming out of the NUMMI plant were astonishing” (NPR). So in a way, the effort worked marvelously. The Toyota employees shared Pickering’s sentiments regarding “real-time understanding of practice” (3). Unlike American managers, the Toyota newcomers seemed eager to communicate with practitioners on the floor. The Japanese would “make suggestions for a different kind of tool that would be better for the job, or a different place for bolts and parts to sit that would be easier to reach,” illustrating the necessity of communication and ground-up teamwork (NPR). The workers were thrilled by this change in managerial attitude.
But in other ways, the methodology was difficult to enact, and the plant ran into unexpected issues. Physically, “the Americans [were] so much larger than the Japanese […] they waste a second or two more each time they get in and out of the vehicles they’re building, making them 10-15% less productive than their Asian counterparts” (NPR). The height disparity (an average of 5 inches, I’m told) represents only one of several uncontrollable factors: “Workers could only build cars as good as the parts they were given. At NUMMI, many of the parts came from Japan and were really good. At [other locations], it was totally different” (NPR). As GM attempted to implement the NUMMI system in other plants, communications between managers and unionized workers fell apart, leading to a myriad of strikes. Like the Pilot Program, NUMMI showed immense promise for restructuring an Iron-Wrought Infrastructure. And Like the Pilot Program, NUMMI was doomed to be swept under a rug. The plant formally closed in 2010, extinguishing a host of innovations and communicatory breakthroughs.
So here we are again, seemingly at a dead end. Both GE and GM failed to maintain the bridge between the social and technological realms, leading to a disheartening repeated narrative. Pickering’s call for action is bold, but I’m not sure I buy what he’s selling: he claims “it is both possible and necessary to escape from the representational idiom [in which] people and things tend to appear as shadows of themselves” (6). Is he suggesting that technology will allow us to access the Real? While we have witnessed this in individualized circumstances, the representational has failed to infiltrated the corporate world. Has Brand’s dreamworld fallen victim to corporate infrastructure at its heart?
In the face of adversity, I’m determined to remain optimistic: although the NUMMI project didn’t last, it points to the fact that we can achieve when we collaborate beyond corporate picket fences. Pickering is right when he says that “this is by no means the end of the story” (165): so let’s hope the future of this particular story is a happy one.
Check out the podcast for the full NUMMI story: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/561/nummi-2015
**There were reasons for this perplexing decision, which the podcast explains in detail.