Monday, October 5, 2009

A sad farewell to Saturn.

Post 339 - I was quite depressed last week to learn that GM will finally close down the Saturn brand. Another great idea that ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. I worked with the original design team that started up Saturn in the early 1980s and was proud of the new organizational model they developed. The stated plan at the time according to GM Chairman, Roger B. Smith, was to create a new company using a new model that could inform the changes that GM management knew it had to make. However, this was a fatally flawed strategy for generating change and innovation as GM's corporate culture that has kept it from making the changes it’s been needing to make for the past 30-years. I see Saturn’s demise as another symptom of a fatally flawed corporate culture that has yet to change.

GM's stated hope was to learn, via Saturn, how to create a different, more profitable kind of car company. The Saturn factory was located in Spring Hill, Tenn., a small town 45 miles south of Nashville and hundreds of miles from the hidebound headquarters of GM and the UAW in Detroit. In a Memorandum of Understanding between GM and the UAW, Saturn stated: "We believe that all people want to be involved in decisions that affect them, care about their jobs . . . and want to share in the success of their efforts." The union contract eliminated most of the work rules that strictly limit the tasks UAW members could perform. Workers were called "technicians" and got 80% of standard UAW wages but could share in Saturn's profits, allowing them to earn more if Saturn succeeded. Most Saturn executives and managers were assigned a UAW counterpart, with the two sharing in key decisions.

Saturn's chief apostle at the UAW was Don Ephlin, at the time the visionary head of the union's GM department. Ephlin strongly believed that Detroit's auto makers and its unions had to change from confrontation to collaboration. However, Saturn was eventually killed off by its creators. The company starved Saturn for new products, and the UAW waged war against Saturn's labor reforms to keep them from spreading to other GM factories. The late Steve Yokich, who replaced Ephlin in charge of the UAW´s GM unit when he retired in 1989, was an implacable enemy of the new ideas being introduced at Saturn. Yokich subsequently became president of the union in 1995. The replacement of Michael Bennett as the local union leader at Spring Hill in 1999, signaled the end of an important experiment in cooperative performance based on union-management collaboration.

One of the things that Saturn also aimed to do was to redefine the customer experience - with no haggle pricing and other innovative ideas. In 1994, when the Saturn spirit was in full bloom, 44,000 owners and families attended a ‘homecoming’ at the plant. GM was clearly onto something with this brand in that regard. Unfortunately those methods were born into the wrong system. The segments of the idea which drove brand appeal were systematically killed off over the years by internal forces.

In 2003 the Spring Hill technicians voted to scrap Saturn's special agreement and return to the UAW's standard contract with GM. Spring Hill became a regular GM factory after the last Saturn was built there two years ago. If Saturn had been treated as a long-term investment, been allowed to broaden the product line keeping the original tenets intact, and allowed to continue to exist beyond the traditional stifling GM culture, the rest of GM might have been able to learn something before the US taxpayers had to bail it out. As it is, we can only look back on what might have been. Meanwhile, the Saturn workers' sense of loss is expressed poignantly by Mike Bennett, their former union leader, who says, "I wake up at night sick, thinking about all the things that might have been."

No comments: