Saturn sets…

What an amazing article in the Times today about the closing of part of a signature Saturn plant.

Anyone in the U.S. in the 90’s remembers the quirky Saturn commercials featuring this Spring Hill plant; how Covey’s book had a ringing endorsement from Skip LeFauve, President of Saturn; how Saturn was representative of the new team-based thinking coupled with a revolution in worker-management relations.

What happened?

The article offers many excuses, but little facts. Many of these explanations are mutually exclusive: did they lose their core values or did they never have them? Was it a quality product or just good marketing or a perception? Most importantly, a constant refrain unanswered, where did Saturn go?

One interesting observation in the article is the bumper stickers: “I Love My Saturn” and “Buy American, Buy Union.” Saturn was a company that stressed loyalty of the consumer to the product and of the workers to management.

The J.D. Power and Consumer Reports surveys say that the cars were no more reliably than their Japanese rivals. “I love my Saturn” but how much did your Saturn really love you?

These workers swept the floors and painted fences when work was slow and removed the no layoffs clause on their union contracts. Nobody shows their true colors until times are tough. This was repaid by no car revisions and layoffs this year.

Did loyalty cross over into blindness? Is there a more classic case of how the true test of worth can only be found in times of distress?

And isn’t “Buy American, Buy Union” an ironic combination in today’s polarized politics? Having used those terms to get ourselves out of the shattering of our strength in the 80’s to Japan and Germany we seemed to have bought into a mistaken mythology that we were invincible. Could you imagine this slogan working today—the last 10 years we’ve been indoctrinating ourselves that what is good for our pocketbooks is good for the country, that somehow we can trickle-down “consumer spend” our way out of our predicament.

The wind in that sail has left.

Burning someone at the stake

Even if we can’t figure out much about Saturn’s fall, I think it is important to remember this is a scathing indictment on something. For if someone crowed about revolutionary management techniques for the rise of Saturn, then should we not pillory them for its fall? At best, it never worked; at worst, it was a short-term distraction that hurt.

The most amusing thing about this is that the only defense to this given in the article is that the “different kind of company” that Saturn was, was never different at all.

“Everyone had that gung-ho feeling,” Sylvia Johnson said. “I thought we would still be doing the same thing for the next 30, 40 years.” Poor Sylvia only lasted half that.

Another business and management myth crumbles.

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