Thursday, June 3, 2010

RIP Saturn: Our Tennessee Connection

Roger & Me, issued in 1989, remains one of the most important films in the formation of my world view, and though it takes place several hundred miles north of Tennessee, it was pivotal in creating an abiding connection between our family and the Volunteer State.

It was Michael Moore's first film, best known for his pursuit of General Motors CEO Roger Smith and some unfortunate business with rabbits. More importantly, it is about the demise of Flint, Michigan and General Motors culpability in that demise. More generally, the film explains how the social contract of the early twentieth century United States -- in which worker loyalty was exchanged for a reasonably comfortable lifestyle -- had been undermined by greed. The film included a brief interview with auto worker Ben Hamper, who in 1991 published Rivethead, a dismal portrayal of the ever-increasing cycles of greed and apathy, as management and labor worked against each other, the customers, and eventually against themselves (though management seems somehow to have emerged from this destructive cycle with its wealth intact).

These great works served as background in 1994, as the pile of degrees in our closet had grown, we had no child yet, and we could see the light at the end of the graduate-school tunnel. Like any good North Americans, this could only mean one thing: time to buy our first new car. But I was still in graduate school, so we were strongly interested in economy -- both in purchase price and in operating costs. And because of what we knew from Messrs. Moore and Hamper, we were in the market for a reasonably just car, if such a thing even exists. That car, it turns out, was a Saturn, and if you are wondering what this story has to do with Tennessee, Roger Smith -- yes, that Roger, along with UAW president Owen Bieber -- had driven the first Saturn off the assembly line in 1990 in Tennessee.

Spring Hill, Tennessee, to be exact, which became an icon for the entire Saturn experience. When General Motors executives -- together with leaders of the United Automobile Workers union -- decided to start fresh, they knew they had to be far from Detroit. They identified workers, engineers, and managers who were interested in creating a new, more cooperative approach. The changes were many, but among the most important was a focus on customers -- not only the ultimate customer buying the car, but also each "customer" within the company, as the interdependency of workers on each other was recognized. Simplicity and transparency were also key elements of the Saturn approach.

The result was "a different kind of car company" that generated tremendous customer loyalty, as documented in this short video of the first of several customer reunions at the factory in Spring Hill.

The story is told in considerable detail in Joe Sherman's very enjoyable In the Rings of Saturn, published in 1993. General Motors established Saturn in 1985, when it realized that its business practices needed very deep changes, in the direction of what is often thought of as "Japanese-style management." Treating fellow workers as customers, for example, meant that the plant was laid out so that engineers for a particular part of the car could work directly with the assemblers who had the most direct experience with that part. 

In a documentary about the company, one of the assembly workers who made the move to Saturn said that he really enjoyed the opportunity to be more fully engaged and invested in this way. He said of his prior experience on assembly lines that GM had hired him only "from the neck down." This was really the beginning of my realization that there is no such thing as unskilled labor. Any work -- no matter how menial it might seem from the outside -- can be done in a more or less thoughtful way. And if it is more thoughtful, the worker, the enterprise, and the customer benefit. It was as if a car company had been modeled on the lessons about quality and caring that Pirsig teaches in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

As a geographer, I found the site-selection process -- by which GM arrived at the Spring Hill location -- particularly exciting. It is not often that the work of professional geographers is undertaken in such cloak-and-dagger style. It had become fairly common knowledge that GM was looking for a green-field site somewhere. Any hint that a site was being considered would draw speculators, so extensive research was done -- pre-internet -- in absolute secrecy. About ten general areas were identified on the basis of very broad considerations such as distance from the population center of the country and major highways. Then detailed maps were consulted within those areas for more specific criteria, such as work force availability and topography. Researchers visiting particular sites took multi-leg plane trips and made decoy hotel reservations, not even telling their families where they were actually going. 

In the end, Spring Hill, Tennessee was chosen, and it became synonymous with the Saturn brand. To a surprising extent, the project worked. Young professionals who had given up on U.S.-made automobiles flocked to Saturn and to the dealerships, where the focus on simplicity, transparency, and fairness was extended. Some of the lessons were then applied elsewhere in GM, even as the company continued to export jobs. Gradually, the purity of the experiment was eroded. Saturn continued to have exceptional dealerships, excellent design, and high quality, but labor relations were at times strained, some production was moved oversees, and more components were shared with other GM brands.

Still, we remained loyal customers, as we were convinced that Saturn was still our best bet on the quality-justice-economy trade-off matrix. (Credit goes to the Magliozzi brothers for the phraseology I'm borrowing here.) When our 1993 sedan gave up the ghost after twelve years and 227,000 miles of criss-crossing the country, the only question was when to buy a Saturn, not whether to do so. We purchased a 2004 wagon -- the last for sale in New England, as Saturn made the mistake of abandoning wagons in favor of gas-guzzlers, er, SUVs. Still, we were delighted to have the wagon for our family of three -- it was much bigger than the sedan, but still looked puny in the pick-up line at our daughter's school, where little kids were typically ferried about in behemoth vehicles that look like they should be carrying the president.

Anyway, we were still loving our Saturn -- which turned 100,000 miles last week -- even though the division never turned a profit. When the banking crisis hit U.S. car manufacturers, the sell-off of assets became inevitable. We crossed our fingers as we heard that Robert Penske might buy the brand, but that deal fell through, too late for any alternative to be found.

Where does this leave Spring Hill? It is not yet known the extent to which it might follow in the footsteps of Flint. When Saturn production -- which had already been reduced -- was shut down there in 2009, CNN referred to the town as "GM-dependent," which we know from Michael Moore is about a half-century removed from being a good thing. As recently as this week, GM offered some possibility -- though no promises -- of a re-opening of the plant in the foreseeable future. Let's hope that this is not the beginning of a period of yo-yo fortunes that have plagued other places that hitched their wagons to GM's star.

For now, we enjoy regular visits to our local dealership-formerly-known-as-Saturn, where we can find the same wonderful people who have taken care of our cars for the past dozen years. And what will we buy when we are ready to retire this car? We are not ready to think about that -- we are still in mourning.

NOTE: I put the quotes around "Japanese-style management" above because even though these practices are common in Japan, many of them originated with W. Edwards Deming, a U.S. scholar. Deming received an award from the Japanese emperor in 1960, a generation before U.S. industry was ready to take him seriously. Eventually, Deming's work was recognized more broadly. By the time I took a job in manufacturing in the mid-1990s, the focus on quality and listening to employees was making its way into our training -- using a lot of Japanese vocabulary words. I completed a small part of such a training course through APICS, as did many of my colleagues in manufacturing along the border.


  1. I still drive my 1994 Saturn, I bought new in 1993, everyday. Only 1 repair it's whole life ..almost 40 miles to the gallon car

  2. Thanks, Caroline. Ours was actually purchased in 93 also, and exceeded published MPG, even fully loaded in the mountains. Cannot say that about the wagon.