For those who believe in such things, the decision of General Motors’ Chairman and CEO, Roger B. Smith, who was Saturn’s adoptive father and head cheerleader, to retire on 30th July 1990, the very day the first Saturn car rolled off the production line in Spring Hill, Tennessee, might have been an ominous portent.
Amongst the other divisional heads within GM, particularly at Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, there was growing resentment towards Saturn and a feeling that their divisions were being starved of investment as a consequence of the huge costs incurred in bringing Saturn to market, alleged to be up to $5 billion. It did not help those who would later attempt to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Three)”
There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.
There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.
Saturn was General Motors’ response to the Japanese invasion of the US auto market.
The Japanese automakers’ penetration of the US market gathered momentum throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, this was a major cause for concern, not just in Detroit, but also in Washington DC, where politicians observed the country’s ballooning trade deficit with alarm. The problem was exacerbated by the behaviour of the US automakers themselves, who were sourcing an increasing proportion of their vehicle parts from Japan.
In 1990, the US-Japan bilateral trade deficit in vehicles and automotive parts was $31.1 billion(1). This represented 28% of the total US trade deficit, and 76% of the country’s bilateral trade deficit with Japan. The deficit in vehicles was $20.6 billion, barely increased on the $19.7 billion deficit seen in 1985. The deficit in automotive parts, however, had more than doubled over the same period, from $4.4 billion to $10.5 billion.