If Blame Helped Solve Problems…

By Jon Miller Updated on May 15th, 2017

…the interview with Newt Gingrich on Fox News would be a brilliant way to get the Detroit automotive companies out of the trouble they are in.

Here is Newt Gingrich taking the bait and laying the blame, making a troubling and complex problem simpler than it is, name-dropping the Toyota Production System along the way.

Well, in a lot of ways, and the auto industry is — a tragic situation. Remember that when we say the auto industry, there are an awful lot of factories in America today that are not General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler that are doing pretty well, whether it’s Honda, Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai. I mean it’s amazing, if you look at the factories that are doing fine.

The fact is, over the years, though, that the Michigan delegation, and particularly the Democrats, with the Michigan delegation, has protected the United Auto Workers with really bad contracts, and the culture of the once big three, now troubled three, has been a culture which has refused to come to grips with reality, refused to try to change and reshape itself, and none of this is magic.

We’ve known for 20 years that the Toyota production system was a more powerful method of increasing productivity and solving problems, and yet the United Auto Workers refused to adopt that model, and General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler went along with them.

Are these last two paragraphs fair and balanced? You decide, as Fox News would say. There is truth in these statements but hey are disappointing coming from such an intelligent, well-read and influential man as Newt Gingrich. His possible insights have been reduced to mere partisan sound bytes.

Edwards Deming taught us that problems have complex causes. Simply blaming the last person, group of people, or the organizational bodies who are in position when the house comes crashing down is not useful. We learn very little from history unless we look deeply into it. Blaming the UAW, the policies of a particular political party, “management” or individual CEOs is counterproductive. The only fruit of blame quarreling, punishment, placing controls or bringing in a new bunch of people who will also be turned into miscreants in the eyes of history because the system they are working within is still flawed.

Responsibility and accountability are important. It is the job of leaders to change the system. Newt Gingrich, the head of the UAW, Congress, the heads of the Detroit 3 auto firms all need stop the senseless game of blame and get to work understanding the root causes. We’ve known for decades how to do root cause analysis.

To paraphrase Mr. Gingrich:

We have known for over 20 years that Deming’s system was a more powerful method of increasing management effectiveness and solving problems, and yet Republicans and Democrats refused to adopt that model, and the people of the United States went along with them.

Shame on us. Let’s stop asking the “five whos” and start asking the “five whys”.

  1. Rick Bohan

    December 6, 2008 - 7:12 am

    It’s clear that the GOP has no interest in actually proposing anything to help solve the problems that their extreme laissez faire “policies” (if you can call doing nothing while the robber barons loot the economy a policy)gave us in the first place. Apart, that is, from blaming all their old foes. Newt and his cronies mention auto execs almost as an afterthought, preferring to place most of the blame on the workers themselves.
    Ask any supplier to any of the Big Three how they’ve gone about their business and you’ll learn the root cause of their impending demise…unadulterated, unmitigated arrogance on the part of the folks paid gazillions of bucks to lead those organizations.
    That said, isn’t it surprising that the GOP has said little about similar arrogance (not to say rank stupidity) on the part of their Wall St. buddies. No unions there.

  2. Erik Stordahl

    December 8, 2008 - 9:26 am

    While sad that this must happen I must say it makes a fascinating case study for those of us in the Lean world. Though as my sensei used to say “The shopfloor is a reflection of management” so I don’t think anyone can say that this is totally undeserved.
    But my question is this: Jon, you spend much time visiting companies and talking with management and workers; why do you believe companies/unions/management et al are so resistant to TPS? Specifically, you once wrote an article about hansei that in my experience was spot on, yet as you’ve pointed out above, 99% of managers would much rather cast blame and point fingers than deeply (and certainly not shamefully) reflect on what went wrong.
    Today GM says they “disappointed” and “betrayed” consumers by letting quality slip etc. This only one week after they firmly stated that nobody could have seen this coming and that they did all they could. This sudden change of tune seems rather disingenuous and brings up yet another difference from Toyota; lack of constancy of vision or as my sensei used to say “student body left, student body right is a great way to tip a canoe” Why is this so difficult for so many managers?

  3. Jon Miller

    December 8, 2008 - 2:36 pm

    Hi Eric,
    I think yours is the $34 billion question. There’s no simple answer to this other than to say it’s all about people. In the end it comes down to the character and ego of leaders. If they are unable to deal with facts, to be honest, to be respectful and fair with everyone, they are unfit to lead in my view. It takes humility and discipline to lead well, especially in times of crisis.
    The root causes of these leadership attitudes and behaviors are complex. We can say the quarterly earnings focus of Wall Street drove auto firms with multi-year product life and development cycles to the wrong behaviors, yet the leaders had a choice to buck Wall Street, as Bill Ford did a few years ago in not sending out quarterly earnings projections.
    Why is Wall Street behavior as it is? And so forth with the 5 whys. These are the big questions the leaders of the U.S. should be asking, not who to blame or how much money to give to whom.
    The led (people) also have a responsibility to call out their leaders or vote with their feet. The 60% opposition rate of U.S. citizens to the bailout is a sign of this.
    If Toyota leadership was able to resurrect the factory that became NUMMI, we can do the same for GM, but not unless the public discourse is elevated beyond blaming.

  4. Joe W

    December 9, 2008 - 9:42 am

    Erik does bring up a good question.
    The “Detroit 3” culture is very much one built on a concept of individual heroics and spreading the blame. (Think “I solved your problem” vs. a lean process of “we fixed the problem”.) It’s very difficult to turn a ship and encourage people to stop pointing fingers when (A) that behavior probably got them promoted to the position they are in and (B) accepting blame is viewed as a sign of weakness and a sure way to reduce your own job security.
    Assigning a “car czar” or anyone else to force “accountability” in to the system is only going to reinforce the behavior as people, departments, and functions scramble to show that it isn’t their fault. There is enough blame to go around, but none of that really matters at this point.
    Jon said the key word “humility”. That is the only thing that will truly save any of these companies. Somebody at the top of any of these companies to step up and say something like, “Sorry…I screwed up. Will you please follow me anyway? If you will, this is where we are going.”

  5. Isaac D. Curtis

    December 9, 2008 - 10:47 am

    When we as a nation/culture begin to value the ecosystem we are a part of, and teach how to communicate as mature beings, our leadership will change. At this time we can be observed to be a large dysfunctional family. We can (and will, for our survival) transition to a global community which meets the needs of all its peoples by rejecting our notions of “rugged individualism” in exchange for sharing and obvious respect. One of the best ways to begin doing this is to turn off the T.V. This media supports a hierarchical and disconnected society by its very nature. A great information giver, a terrible teacher of value and community, it is an individualistic, isolated controller of minds. When we change our minds, we will change our behaviors.

  6. Karen Wilhelm

    December 10, 2008 - 10:21 am

    I don’t know whether we’re looking at comedy or tragedy anymore. The understanding of manufacturing among our so-called leaders is pitifully small, but instead of going out and learning something, they deal in gestures (demanding $1 year salaries and parking of corporate jets) and simplistic notions, including that of letting the market take care of it all. I wonder if Newt Gingrich or Christopher Dodd would spend a week working alongside the UAW members in the companies they want to deride. Or a week with Alan Mulally. Most of us could go on forever talking about where these companies went wrong, but conducting the Salem witch trials is not constructive.

  7. Sarah F

    December 11, 2008 - 12:49 pm

    Excellent post and excellent discussion. It’s interesting that Gingrich completely ignores any efforts the Detroit Three have made to adopt lean practices. They’re no Toyota, but they’ve certainly made strides in the last 20 years (and Toyota has been developing TPS for over 40 years–the Detroit Three weren’t going to be poster children overnight).
    Unfortunately, their troubles are trickling down to their suppliers–including many transplant suppliers who have diversified their business. This in turn will trickle back up to Toyota, Honda, etc. It’s going to be a long winter for everyone.

  8. kubi Alex

    December 29, 2008 - 2:00 am

    Sara you are right, there is a very simply saying that I leaned from one of the backer, and owner after we went through a KAIZEN Program introduction. He was so pleased that he change his slogan, and I quote; ‘…at Back ‘n’ bite, we back from the heart’.
    From the top man himself. He noticed the value of red target items were twice the the value of the ‘runner’. He therefor established a partnership with with the millers and key supplier and with a year he mastered the supply chain management.
    I am of a different opinion on your last comment. If Toyota have mastered their supply chain, one of the their key indicator being JIT, they could smell trouble from a distance and start working on counter measure… is it not why we have product development and research as a our core business enablers…I am learning and I stand corrected Sara!

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