“Don’t Stop The Line” and the Courage To Stop

“If you have these two things – the willingness to change, and the acceptance of everything as it comes, you will have all you need to work with.”
– Charlotte Selver

“Don’t stop the line.” For many years this was an agreement, almost an unwritten law of the General Motors assembly lines building cars and trucks. Management believed that keeping the car assembly line going at all times was essential. Keeping the line going was clearly more efficient than stopping the line. According to a 30-year GM employee, management assumed that “If the line stopped workers would play cards or goof off.” As a result of this philosophy and way of working, problems were ignored instead of addressed. Defective cars, some missing parts, or cars with parts put on backwards were put into their own special “defective” lot. This lot grew to enormous proportions. At some point, addressing and fixing these problem cars became too costly.

In late 2008, a group of General Motors assembly workers were sent to Fremont, California, as part of a GM/Toyota collaboration called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.). Several GM managers were flown to Japan to learn the Japanese methodology for building cars. What they discovered— was an amazing aha! Anyone on the assembly line who had a concern about the quality of a part could stop the line at any time. Problems were addressed immediately. Groups of workers got together and address and solved problems. Toyota managers assumed that their workers wanted to build the best cars possible. At Toyota, constant improvement was a regular motto and attitude, and was regularly integrated within all aspects of car production. Teams were assembled to discuss problems, look for insights, and develop better methods for producing problem-free cars. Toyota consistently built better quality cars with more efficiency and lower costs.

General Motors went into bankruptcy and needed to be bailed out in 2008 by American taxpayers for many reasons. There were so many problems facing the company, but one notable contribution to its downfall was producing a poor quality product caused in part by not stopping and solving significant problems. I imagine that this “don’t stop the line” attitude was embedded in the company’s planning and strategy as well as assembly line. Just keep doing what we are doing and everything will be fine.

It is easy to look at GM and see their folly, and this particular GM tale is a well-known story in today’s organizational effectiveness lore. But what about my company and your company or organization? In my coaching and consulting practice, I notice many versions of “don’t stop the line.” It might take the form of “don’t question the boss” or “don’t confront the rude star salesperson.” It can also come in the guise of spending more time projecting and planning instead of cultivating strategic and critical thinking. There are many other subtle and not so subtle behaviors and habits of overlooking problems in the world of work. Stopping, admitting mistakes, working collaboratively and improving processes that are for the good of the organization, require courage and often require asking difficult questions.

What version of “don’t stop the line” is embedded in your organization, relationships, and life? What might stopping look like? What would courage look like?