LINDSAY CHAPPELL

How Mark Hogan came full circle to aid Toyota

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.
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The news that General Motors alum Mark Hogan will take an unprecedented director's seat on the board at Toyota Motor Corp. evokes all sorts of historical observations.

But don't forget this one: Hogan has come full circle to Toyota's aide.

Presumably, based on his rich global experience inside GM senior management and as president of Magna International Inc., one of the industry's biggest and most complex parts companies, Hogan will have a lot to share with Toyota as it tries to recapture some lost vigor.

But a generation ago, it was a young Hogan who came to Toyota seeking insight into how to run a better business.

It was 1985, and there was this mystical land out there called NUMMI. New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., in the San Francisco Bay town of Fremont.

NUMMI was a wondrously improbable carmaking joint venture between Toyota and GM. It was Toyota on one side, with all of its inscrutable factory practices, like kaizen, and the great and powerful GM on the other side.

Toyota was rapidly growing. GM was slowly shrinking. People inside GM, as well as many Americans who were unsettled by the rise of Japanese brands in the U.S. market, couldn't understand why GM would bother assisting Toyota in America.

But to a small number of GM managers -- know internally as "the NUMMI commandos" -- the reason was clear: GM wanted to know what made Toyota so good at building cars, particularly small cars. And NUMMI was GM's privileged peek-hole into how Toyota did whatever it was doing so well.

One of those commandos was Mark Hogan. Dispatched from GM offices in Detroit, Hogan occupied the NUMMI comptroller desk, watching, asking questions, listening, learning and taking notes.

It didn't take long for Hogan and his fellow GM commandos to learn the recipe for Toyota's exotic Japanese secret sauce. It was called responsibility. Toyota excelled at things like flawless parts and glitch-free paint jobs because executives, managers and workers -- even the Marlboro-smoking, Camaro-driving ones of California -- took personal responsibility to make sure their jobs were done well.

Too radical?

Apparently it was when Hogan and his co-commandos began filtering back into assignments at GM.

Some things changed. New ideas were tried. But in the end, NUMMI was just sort of one of those experiences where, as they say, you just had to be there.

Lack of urgency

"I was very convinced that we had to change, and we had to change rapidly," Hogan told National Public Radio a couple of years ago. "And I think all of us that were NUMMI alums, so to speak, were frustrated at the lack of urgency."

GM proved a bit too big, too rich, too diverse and too confident in its own might to be converted to a humble new philosophy. Hogan moved on in his career, telling Automotive News from time to time that what he learned at NUMMI he carried with him to other jobs.

GM pulled out of NUMMI as it coped with bankruptcy in 2009. Unable to carry the auto plant on its own, Toyota closed NUMMI a year later.

Hogan's worldview is now seasoned by far more than his stint at NUMMI. But in his new role at Toyota, his words of advice can't help but bear traces of whatever inspiration NUMMI once gave to a squad of young American managers.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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