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December 1, 2018 // 11 Comments

Are you perpetually and transparently discussing and preparing for inevitable work changes?

Hey there, Rikki Schwartz here… I was born and raised in and around Detroit, Michigan, where the auto industry (for better or for worse) has always been the area’s heart and soul.  Having lived in Flint, MI for nearly a decade in the 80s, I watched automotive plant closings tear at the fabric of the city, its neighborhoods and families.  To give you an idea of the dramatic shift that unfolded while I lived there — 50% of the (190,000) residents of Flint were employed by GM in the 1970s, whereas only 5,000 of Flint’s (110,000) residents currently work for the auto giant.  Likewise, as of 2015, 61 automotive plants had closed in Metro Detroit…and that was long before the recent (Nov 20, 2018) announcement that GM would be closing five more plants in the U.S. and Canada.

And here I am, relegated…once again…to helplessly watch neighboring friends and family struggle with the consequences of losing their livelihoods.

Plant closures tell a story of business, of economy, of S&P indices.  But it’s the human stories that have always hypnotized me into asking the same question over and over again: Despite such a long (and I would thereby argue PREDICTIVE) history of plant closures in the auto industry, WHY do the “leaders” continue to keep the closures shrouded in secrecy until they release carefully crafted announcements to their employees and the general public simultaneously.  Case in point, last week the Detroit Free Press featured an article about the Detroit plant closings which explained that the roughly 1,500 Detroit-Hamtramck workers were at home on Thanksgiving break, watching the news of their plant closure spill from the lips of newscasters, and (literally) sneak across the bottom of cable news screens…at the same time as everybody else.  One (now locally infamous) response was from a Detroit line worker named Dnitra Landon:  “You tell the world before you tell us?  The world don’t come in here every morning at 6 o’clock to work for you, so how come we don’t get to know before the world?” 

The poignancy of Dnitra’s statement has haunted me since I read the article.  And all I kept thinking…”If only GM practiced the principles of an Agile culture, this outcome could have been so different”.  Maybe not the results (namely the closures)…but most certainly the outcome of those closures.

If you know anything about Agile, you know that the concept of “inspect and adapt” drives the Agile bus.  But, as you also know, it’s an iterative process.  We don’t wait until the existing process is an irreversible failure, we inspect and adapt constantly…AND (most importantly) we involve our teams every step of the way.  That way, at the very least, “shock” (and the lack of ability to prepare both financially and emotionally), is NOT one of the horrors that accompanies massive layoffs.  In Flint (largely as a result of the “energy crisis”), the plant closures were a result of consumers switching from large vehicles to small.  Now in Detroit, the closures are reportedly based on an effort “to focus more on autonomous and electric vehicles”.  Neither of these consumer shifts occurred over night.  What if the company had practiced the iterative conversations of an Agile culture over the past few years, which could have (at a minimum) prepared workers that these changes were likely to impact the workforce?  Where was the employee engagement and empowerment of the 6,000 blue-collar (and 8,000 white collar) employees that…who knows…could have leveraged their collective knowledge to come up with a less devastating solution?  We’ll never know…but what we do know…is that we’ll never know.

Further, if you know anything else about Agile, you know that it is steeped in transparency and trust.  Non-Agile leaders assume that if they reveal disruption too early, it will produce stress, contentious labor union and community reactions, and departures of key employees.  They think “Why risk such things to start an unpleasant conversation earlier than necessary?”  But what if this assumption was challenged?  Because, what GM is instead left with now, in the rubble of its remaining employees, is insecurity, anxiety, and (more destructive than anything), a complete lack of trust for GM leadership…which will undoubtedly translate to a drop in productivity, morale and commitment.

Every day, YOU, as leaders, choose how transparently you share knowledge about how work is changing.   Are you driven by old assumptions to keep quiet until disruptive change is unavoidable…OR are you perpetually and transparently discussing and preparing for inevitable work changes?  Have you considered the long-term value of candid and honest conversations about the perpetual (KEY WORD) upgrade of work—even if those conversations are painful at the time?  Again, the results may be the same, but the outcome will not.

We’d love to hear from YOU!  Do you agree that Agile would have changed the outcome at GM?  Why or why not?

–Rikki

11 Responses

  1. Hale Wells says:

    On the same day as the GM layoff announcement, a close friend of mine drove an hour and a half to work (twice the drive time due to snow) only to be told upon arrival that he was being let go because of financial constraints. He wasn’t the only one – 15 of his co-workers were called into a conference room individually throughout the day to find out that the job they had been doing for the past several years was no longer theirs. This all took place the day after the long Thanksgiving weekend. My friend was shocked and devastated. I truly believe that Agile COULD have changed the outcome of this situation.

    • This story breaks my heart. Truly. Thank you so much for sharing, Hale. I wish your friend success in finding new employment and a quick recovery from what I know was heartbreaking news.

  2. Jennifer Gentry-Saulski says:

    Great article. I fear that businesses, such as automotive manufacturing, will be the last type of places to adopt Agile. The seem to be mired in the “this is how we do things” mentality. As people’s livelihood are so dependent on these jobs, it is imperative that businesses and leadership learn to adapt with the shifting wants of their customers. Then, and only then, can they have a chance to prosper.

    • Thanks for the great comments, Jen! And I agree with you. I worked for GM (Flint) for 2 years in the 80s, and then for the Ford Motor Company (Rouge Complex) for 5 years. They are a tough nut to crack. But, hope springs eternal 🙂 I keep hoping they will learn lessons from these painful events, but alas…

      Thanks again for commenting. Keep checking our blog and please keep commenting!! You obviously have some experience with Agile from which we can all benefit!

  3. Scotty Kilbourne says:

    Rikki, I actually had the opportunity to teach agile/scrum inside GM (Warren and downtown). I was amazed at their ability to talk the talk but when it came time to walk correctly there was a strong management push for the traditional technique. They called it SDP21 (Software Development Process and was based heavily on waterfall. I haven’t been inside for over 7 years but when I was there we had several discussions/talks about ‘inspect and adapt’. Their attitude at the time was we don’t have time for that we just want to deliver faster. Keep in mind the Agile mindset is not easy to adopt and does require significant directed effort to change the culture and culture does not change overnight.

    • Great comment, Scott! And yes…it is often very difficult for management to move from theory to practice when it comes to Agile. From my perspective, you can choose to spend (what may be) added time now to avoid failure…or spend that time/expense later recovering from failure. And more importantly, keep people enjoying their jobs along the way! Thanks so very much for commenting! Keep checking our blog…and keep commenting! Conversation is one of the only mechanisms we have for inspiring more conversation…and hopefully more change.

  4. Meg Travers says:

    Rikki, your article is very accurate. Having worked with the big 3 in the late 90’s, GM in particular, they missed several opportunities to embrace agile concepts and outcomes. They were wedded instead to ITIL and Kaizen and quality based methodologies that worked to a certain extent but were never fully embraced.
    The agile process is customized to drive out inefficiencies and quickly identify the requirements and products the customer truly wants, rather than leaders dictating what they believe the customer wants . Product development, product refinement and reviews would have most likely transformed the design process and eliminated the silos that exist, even to the extent of the floor being redesigned for optimal outcomes. Speed of decision making and time to market would be transformational.

    • Brilliant comments, Meg! Thanks so much for sharing. And I couldn’t agree more!! Please keep following our blog and leaving comments, since you obviously know a great deal about the subject! Can’t wait to hear from you again!

  5. Robert Nasir says:

    Outstanding insights. There is every reason to believe that the kind of clear, fact-focused, reality-oriented approach offered by Agile methods would have served General Motors much better than the damn the torpedoes political machinations the Company has followed for too long.

    • Thank you, Robert! And thanks for your colorful insights – I agree wholeheartedly! Stay tuned for more blog postings, and please jump in often. I look forward to hearing more from you!

  6. a.i. says:

    Great article! Very curious to see what would happen if there was more transparency in these types of situations.

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