Forty years after the end of World War II, one of its most enduring lessons is being unlearned and buried.
The burial is taking place in industrial areas like Detroit, where it was learned in the first place.
Flip back ever farther in time, to the beginning of the war, when companies like General Motors Corp. were suddenly challenged to quit making passenger cars and respond to a call to arms.
Within a month, GM was making aircraft engines, pushing them out as fast as the lines would run. The Buick plant in Flint, Mich., got up to 1,000 engines a month alone and the pattern was repeated all over industrial America. From Oldsmobile: 48 million artillery rounds during the war. From Chevrolet and other GM plants, 854,000 heavy trucks.
The lesson was that mass production wins. That philosophy became engrained as the way GM did business. Managers were judged on their ability to meet their production quotas and keep their assembly lines running on schedule. It was the corporate culture, says Alex Mair, GM vice president for technical staff groups, who heads the company's technical, engineering and design staffs. And it lasted.
"It was very, very difficult to get on the plant manager of an assembly plant, even in 1978 in GM, who was struggling to get another 10 cars out a day. . . ." says Mair. It was hard to tell that manager that customers didn't like the cars because the quality wasn't good enough when customers were buying all that GM could make. It was hard to tell that to the autoworkers, when they were working overtime and Saturdays to get the cars out.
Another part of the culture grew out of America's seemingly bottomless natural resources, Mair says.
Twenty years ago, he says, Chevrolet's foundry in Saginaw, Mich., was the biggest in the world, pouring ribbons of molten iron to make automobile engine blocks.
Iron ore from the foundry came from the rich Mesabi range in Minnesota, scraped off so easily and cheaply that it was taken for granted. Engineers gave little thought to designing engines in a way that minimized the amount of shaping, machining and drilling required to finish the engine block.
In Japan, the culture was just the opposite. A nation poor in natural resources wasted nothing. Its engine blocks were cast as precisely as possible to minimize a waste of metal and the time and cost of finishing the pieces. "In Japan . . . the whole mindset is, 'I'd better make the casting as near to final shape as I can get it,' " noted Mair.
The mass production culture trapped Detroit in other ways. In the 1960s, Chevrolet turned out more than one million Impalas a year and the stamping presses that punched out fenders and other body parts were designed with that in mind: heavy and durable.
Japan's auto industry started small and grew steadily. Denied the luxury of long model runs, the Japanese became masters of designing stamping presses that could rapidly be switched over from one model to another.
GM didn't need that capability in the 1960s, when customers had relatively few models to choose from. It needs it now, however, in a market overcrowded with choices, in which GM's highest production model -- the Cavalier -- totals 400,000 units a year or less. But GM's old presses took 50 worker-hours to switch over. Japan's took two.
Finally, GM awoke to the realization that it was no longer the leader. "Somebody had gotten better . . . in the two areas that really count, quality and cost," said Mair.
GM's goal now is to lead all its rivals in using technology to produce the highest quality and the greatest production efficiency. It is a simple thing to announce a new philosophy for a company as big as General Motors, but it is a herculean job to get members of an entire bureaucracy to discard the ways they had been taught to think and work. The process of change has been under way for three or four years at GM and it isn't completed.
The same transformation is under way at National Steel Corp.'s plant on the Detroit River, a major manufacturer of sheet metal for the auto industry.
Edward Sambuchi, general manager of National's Great Lakes plant, said that the plant had always been driven by production goals -- until now. "The idea was, if Pete doesn't buy it, Joe will," said Sambuchi. "Now Pete's broke and Joe's out of business."
National can't make steel and then start looking for a buyer, as it used to, says Sambuchi. It must live with its customers, understanding their product needs, anticipating how their quality requirements will change, and making improvements to products that create new opportunities for the customers, Sambuchi said.
Replacing the old ethic of high production hasn't been easy. Over 40 percent of the plant's employes are participating in quality improvement meetings or training that emphasizes the new ethic of quality and efficiency. Some 60 percent have "bought" the new philosophy, says Sambuchi.
"It's starting to work. You're starting to hear people bragging about their yields" -- the percentage of finished steel products produced from liquid steel, a key index of quality.
But the quality goal is a far more complex, subtler goal than volume production. And unlike a volume target, quality is a goal that is never reached, never satisfied, Sambuchi said.