Setting the Stage for Culture Change
Our story begins with one of the most powerful and successful companies in the world self-destructing and ultimately declaring bankruptcy. The seeds of destruction were apparent even during its most successful years, when it reported strong sales and financial results. In 1965, General Motors owned 60 percent of the U.S. automobile market and was making inroads into markets in other countries. The company’s biggest fear at the time was that the government would file an antitrust suit against it and divide it into smaller units. Those fears were short-lived, as market share plummeted, and a long, gradual decline of the company ensued. GM’s most recent market share in the U.S. is under 20 percent.
It is within this context that a remarkable event occurred at one of GM’s prototypical plants. The Tonawanda Engine Plant made engines for Chevrolets and other GM vehicles. However, its culture was toxic, with workers and management engaged in a hostile relationship. Products were of poor quality, and productivity was low. Within weeks of Don Rust’s appointment as plant manager, he was summoned to GM headquarters in Detroit and told that the engine plant would be closed soon if he and his plant management team could not sign a labor contract and convince GM’s top management to invest in building new engines there.
What inspired the authors to write this book was the need to tell the story of how the Tonawanda Engine Plant was able to rescue itself from near closure to the most successful engine plant in GM, ultimately setting a world record in the number of engines produced in one day. How did this happen? What were the secrets that led to the plant’s successful rebirth? How did this plant change from a toxic organizational culture to one that workers looked forward to coming to work at every day?
The authors believe the answer to these questions was the unleashing of human energy that always existed but was never tapped at the plant. In our book and the blogs that follow, we will tell the story of what it takes to create real culture change within one of the largest organizations in the history of American manufacturing—and how transforming this organization can offer insight into how other organizations might succeed in similar ways.