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GM's Team Concept on the Line : In New-Age Training, Van Nuys Workers Study Air Crashes, Atomic War

September 22, 1987|GREGORY CROUCH | Times Staff Writer

If losing sales to Ford and a possible strike seem like big problems, they are nothing contrasted with what General Motors' Van Nuys workers went through in May.

First their plane crashed in the desert. Then they endured a nuclear attack.

While GM's problems are all too real, the plane crash and nuclear holocaust were merely hypothetical scenarios, part of the workers' training for team concept, a Japanese manufacturing method.

Team concept eliminates many job classifications and encourages worker-management cooperation. By having employees work in groups on entire sections of a car instead of performing single, repetitive tasks, the hope is that better quality Pontiac Firebirds and Chevrolet Camaros will roll off the line in Van Nuys.

Last May the 4,000 workers from GM's Van Nuys plant spent seven days in the classroom at a junior high school in Woodland Hills, listening to lecturers from UCLA, GM and the United Auto Workers. The teachers used the 156-page team-concept training manual, written in part by a trio of UCLA professors.

The course amounted to a primer in group psychology, including "conflict resolution," "group dynamics," and "stress management."

The teachers told workers how to become better listeners, how to reach a consensus, how to better manage their time and how to avoid stress. Everything but how to build a car.

In Use Since May

Team concept has now been used on the factory floor in Van Nuys since May. Despite some production problems, GM remains convinced that the concept will eventually pay off.

Nevertheless, Peter Beltran, the shop chairman for UAW local 645 in Van Nuys, contends that team concept is simply a way for GM to cut its work force by asking workers to assume more and more responsibility. Team concept, he said, is "brainwashing; it's 'est' training." (Erhard Seminars Training is a self-improvement course drawing from Zen and Scientology that was trendy in the 1970s.)

The team-concept classroom studies were a radical departure from life on the assembly line. "Some of the workers wondered what the hell was happening," said Gloria Busman, a UCLA professor who wrote part of the training manual and helped run the May conference.

Here are some samples from the training manual:

In one chapter, workers were given several messages they could use to polish their listening skills, including "I accept you as a person" and "I respect your thoughts."

Busman recalls, "Some of the workers said other guys would say they were off their rocker if they said that to someone."

Busman and her two UCLA colleagues, James Ballagh and Joel Fadem, caution against taking any of the suggestions too literally. "They may not ever say those actual words but there is a way to get that message across," Busman said.

The manual identifies five types of managers: the turtle, the shark, the teddy bear, the fox and the owl. "Turtles withdraw into their shells to avoid conflicts," the manual reads. "Sharks try to overpower opponents by forcing them to accept their solution to the conflict."

GM came up with its own theory of relativity: ED = Q x A. According to the manual, "Your team's ability to make the effective decisions depends on two things: the quality thinking behind the decision and the team's acceptance of that decision. You can say this in a formula: ED = Q x A."

The educators hoped a quick formula would help workers remember what they had learned. "We're not trying to make scientists out of people," Fadem said. "But these are things people in offices and factories do all the time in their everyday lives. This is not psychological drip."

Workers had to figure what to do during a nuclear attack. Each team was given a list of 10 people, knowing that only six people would fit into a nuclear fallout shelter. They had to choose who would live and who would die. "There were a few persons quite upset by it," said Busman. "They didn't want to play God."

Beltran said this exercise is a precursor of things to come at the Van Nuys plant. "If team concept is designed to eliminate people by consensus, as I think it is, then this was perfect. Everyone will decide to get rid of the older workers, the disabled workers and the women."

The state of California gave General Motors $20 million to help cover the cost of retraining its workers.

After four months of building cars according to team concept, Larry Barker, a 10-year GM veteran, has concluded: "Things just aren't working out the way we were told they would at school. I think a lot of the things done in that school were a waste of time."

But Van Nuys plant manager Ernest Schaefer disagrees, saying, "There's no one in Detroit who wants to scrap this thing. They are excited about it."

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