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Saturn Plant's Innovations Live on at GM Despite Cutbacks

December 12, 2005
When General Motors revealed in November that it would eliminate 5,000 more jobs, in addition to 25,000 previously announced cuts, and close all or part of a dozen plants, the most conspicuous casualty was what had once been the carmaker’s centerpiece of workplace innovation.

    The Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, known for its experiments in labor/ management cooperation, open communication and flexibility, is slated to lose one of its two production lines and as many as 1,500 jobs. Production of Saturn’s Ion compact will be shifted to another GM plant, and Spring Hill will make some non-Saturn vehicles. "We really consider it to be another GM facility, just like any other," says GM spokesman Stefan Weinmann.

    Both GM and some outside experts, however, say that the knowledge and experience from Saturn aren’t going to be lost, even as the plant is scaled back.

    "The Saturn model of work practices already has flowed back into GM," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich­igan. "It was a successful experiment. At this point, it’s really unnecessary to have Saturn as a separate entity."

    When GM launched the Saturn experiment in 1990, it was a novel attempt to break away from the labor acrimony and inflexible practices that had long plagued the U.S. car industry. At Saturn, the United Auto Workers union signed a separate contract that gave workers a voice in designing vehicles, picking suppliers and planning production processes. In exchange for a no-layoffs clause, workers agreed to have 20 percent of their compensation tied to productivity goals and agreed to a flexible workplace with relatively few job classifications, where they were cross-trained to perform a variety of tasks.

    "The Saturn experiment’s bottom line was that you could make significant changes to improve productivity and still deal with the union," says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. "You could have a relationship built on trust and recognition of each other’s roles."

    While Saturn’s style was a revelation at GM, the car brand itself struggled, and never became a sales leader. Lack of volume hindered Saturn’s workplace innovations. According to figures compiled by Harbour and Associates, a Troy Hill, Michigan-based consulting firm, the Saturn plant ranks just 21st out of 35 in efficiency among North American passenger-car plants. GM absorbed Saturn into its companywide Global Manufacturing System in 2004, and Saturn workers now have the same contract as the rest of GM’s workforce.

    GM spokesman Weinmann says there probably won’t be any direct effort to transfer knowledge from the Saturn plant or any of the other facilities being closed, such as a high-performing production line in Oshawa, Ontario, that ranked fourth in efficiency among North American passenger-car plants. "We try to communize as much as possible," he says. "But you can’t just assume that you can transfer everything from one plant to another. They make different products, have different suppliers, and so on."

    But in a larger sense, such transfer is unnecessary because Saturn’s collaborative practices already have influenced the rest of GM. "Saturn brought the team concept, with labor working more collegially with supervisors, and flexibility about work roles," Cole says. "That’s going on across GM now."

Workforce Management, December 12, 2005, p. 3 -- Subscribe Now!