Teamwork, input key to management of new auto plant GM's Saturn tries to outdo the Japanese

April 01, 1991|By Gerald Graham | Gerald Graham,Knight-Ridder

"If we do nothing more than treat our customers as well as w treat one another, then there's no way we can fail," says Eleanor White, a team member [an employee in most organizations] in Saturn's Tennessee auto manufacturing plant.

The Saturn automobile is General Motor's all-out effort to outdo the Japanese in the small-car market. And according to Saturn Area Manager Jill Lajdziak, the keynote speaker at a recent Corporate Entrepreneurship Conference at Wichita State University, the Saturn workplace is significant in many ways:

* Consensus decision making. Decisions are made by teams of people who will be affected by the decision. The team works to get at least 70 percent support of the decision by all members of the decision-making team. "There are no 6-2 votes," Jill said.

If an individual is not at least 70 percent committed to the decision, all parties are requested to bring additional facts to the table. If this fails to attain the 70 percent commitment, the decision does not go forward.

* Teamwork. Saturn looks for self-directed employees with good attitudes who can work as a team.

The three most important qualities the company looks for in hiring are, in order: team orientation, oral communication and analytical ability. Additionally, all employees receive large doses of training in "people courses."

* Customer input. Customers were involved six years ago. Potential consumers told designers what they wanted in a small car, and the designers built the consumers' requests into the system.

* Member input. As a result of team-member input, no one walks more than five minutes from the parking lot to work; there are no executive dining areas; there is a cafeteria in each building; and people are encouraged to eat at different tables so they get to know one another better.

* Dealer input. Saturn got 16 dealers together who met two days each month for two years to develop distribution strategies. As a result, each dealer was granted a larger than usual geographic territory. Thus, dealers can have multiple locations, and they have an opportunity to grow with the company as retail partners.

Prospective dealers also visited the plant and helped design dealer layouts. Further, new dealers are screened by a peer-review team of current dealers before being selected.

* Rewards. If the company does not meet its quality goals, all members, including managers, can lose up to 20 percent of their pay. People can also receive additional rewards by exceeding the company goals.

There is little doubt that Saturn has created an unusual work environment. In the near future, we will know whether consumers embrace their product.

Saturn's philosophy

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following?

1. All members of a decision-making group should be able to give at least 70 percent support to the decision before going forward.

2. A team orientation is of greater value than analytical ability as a criterion for selecting employees.

3. All employees should receive periodic training in "people courses."

L 4. The human is the most important ingredient in any system.

5. All people should be involved in all decisions that affect them.

6. Good attitudes are more important than technical ability when hiring.

7. Employees should have major input into the design of buildings.

8. Customers should have the most influence in product and service design.

9. Distributors should have significant input in distribution strategies.

10. It is possible for labor and management to work together as supportive partners.

Interpretation. Four equals strongly agree, 3 equals agree, 2 equals disagree, and 1 equals strongly disagree. Total your points. Thirty-five or more points suggests a tendency to agree with Saturn's philosophy.

Gerald Graham is a professor at Wichita State University and a management consultant.

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