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Mike Micklewright

Quality Insider

RIP My Dear Saturn, Part 1

The early days

Published: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - 07:23

Question: How is the octuplets mom similar to an American CEO?

Answer: She outsourced the main process, she made more inventory than she can properly care for, and she expects bail-outs for her wasteful actions.

Saturn was my real first job and it pains me to learn that after just 24 years, Saturn could possibly be gone. My sadness isn’t so much with seeing the car itself bid farewell, rather it stems from what Saturn stood for at the very beginning, when I was there. The early leaders of Saturn, people I got to know pretty well as a summer student in 1985, mostly came out of the Pontiac Motor division and were heavily influenced by Dr. Deming. In fact, Dr. W. Edwards Deming celebrated his 83rd birthday in 1983 at the Pontiac Motor division, speaking and training with many of the people who would eventually become the top management at Saturn. William Hoglund, the first Saturn president, and Jay Wetzel, vice president of engineering and my first boss, were some of them.

Saturn was going to be a “different kind of company”—one that would compete head to head with the Japanese imports in the small-car market in terms of quality and customer satisfaction, and it would be profitable. Each employee was supposed to benchmark his or her area of responsibility with that of Toyota and ensure that Saturn’s was as good, if not better, than Toyota. Some of us took it to heart, many didn’t.

Coming out of college, I was excited to work on this project and be employed by a company that would be at the leading edge of technology; use innovative management, employee, and dealership systems; and would bring back the U.S. car market.

In December, 2008, General Motors president, Fritz Henderson, told Automotive News that Saturn “is just not successful” and that the brand would be folded or sold off. It brought a tear to my eye and caused me to reflect on what Saturn had meant to me and why it failed after such high early expectations. I recently opened up a large bin that housed my old paperwork from my early career and I reminisced some more. In that bin, I found one of the first Saturn prototype keys that belonged to one of the original four hand-built Saturn prototypes, along with a lot of other interesting mementos and photographs.

The Summer of '85

I was on the four-and-a-half year plan to receive my general engineering degree from the University of Illinois. I would graduate in December of 1985. To gain interview experience, I began interviewing for jobs in the Spring of 1985. Saturn came to the University of Illinois and we hit it off very well. I was invited to Michigan for another round of interviews along with a lot of other students from across the nation. We were treated like royalty. It was a dream come true.

Saturn couldn’t offer me a full-time job because I still had one more semester to go; nonetheless, this didn’t keep me from persistently calling and leaving messages with two of the engineers I had interviewed with. Neither would return any of the many voicemail messages I left for them. Then, just before the end of the spring semester, I received a call from Jerry. He said that the vice president of engineering had requested a persistent summer student to work on some projects for him during the summer. Jerry naturally thought of me as he reviewed his countless voicemails.

So, I was off to Detroit for two-and-a-half months and the dream job. There were 20 to 25 other summer students who would also work for the Saturn project (it was not yet a company) during that summer. Most would work for other engineers or lower-level managers. I got to work directly for Jay Wetzel, a person who was influenced by Dr. Deming (though I had no idea of who Dr. Deming was at that time). I felt pretty special.

I initially worked on some small projects developing spreadsheets of competitive vehicles and comparing them, line item by line item, on a variety of different attributes. It was somewhat mundane, boring work, but I got to meet a lot of higher level people and became friends with a few of them.

Then, one day, Wetzel sat me down and said that he would like me to organize a competitive vehicle test trip for all of the top brass within the company and that this trip would take place over two long weekends in the Rocky Mountains and deserts of the Southwest. We would take two of the four Saturns in existence (each worth about $5 million) and four to six other competitive vehicles, including ones from Toyota, Isuzu, Mazda, Honda, and BMW. We would drive long days, up to 12 hours, and stop to see the sites, just as a vacationing customer would do.

After driving one car for 30 minutes, I would get on the walkie-talkie and tell everyone to switch. We would pull off to the side of the road and rotate positions. The drivers would move to the car behind them and passengers in each car would move forward to the car in front of them so that no one ever sat with the same person. Throughout the day, we would compare the vehicles’ performance and many other attributes. With regard to mileage, the prototype Saturns were getting an incredible 42 miles per gallon in the mountains. I don’t know how or why those mileage numbers diminished between then and when Saturn sold its first car.

This type of trip through the mountains and deserts, as the customer would experience it, is exactly what Jeffrey Liker discusses in his book, The Toyota Way (McGraw-Hill, 2003). We were actually doing something Toyota-ish. We were “going to the place” and observing and experiencing, as is done in a Gemba walk (for you lean aficionados). We were doing consumer research just as Dr. Deming had prescribed. It was so cool, and yet it was still early enough in the process that we had plenty of time to screw it all up. But right then, we were doing something right.

The driving trips occurred two weekends in a row with two different groups of top management personnel. In between the two weekends, I stayed in Phoenix, “worked” at the proving grounds, and stayed at a luxurious resort, along with a lower-level engineering manager named Tom.

During the driving trips, I was getting paid double and triple time because I was working on the weekend (double time) and for more than eight hours (triple time). This was my first exposure to the way that GM spent its money. There were also highly-priced technicians and mechanics that went on the trip in case there were any breakdowns. They were also getting double and triple time. I was learning at the very young age of 22 how to take advantage of a system that willfully hands out more money than I had ever expected, or deserved.

When I was reminiscing and reviewing all of my old Saturn documents, I came across the transparencies that indicated our paths through Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. I remember stopping off to visit Durango, Colorado; the Painted Desert; Meteor Crater; Flagstaff, Arizona; and the Petrified Forest.

I also remember the president asking me to obtain a TV/VCR at the hotel in Flagstaff so that he could show everyone the videotape of the announcement that Saturn would build its new plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. This was, after all, historic information, as so many cities and states were vying for the privilege of hosting the new Saturn plant.

The next morning, we had to leave early to continue our trek as a typical vacationing family would do. I was meticulous in ensuring that the hotel management would return the TV/VCR to the rental company that had rented it to us. Apparently, I wasn’t thorough enough. Weeks later, after turning in my expense report, I learned, second hand, that the TV/VCR was stolen from the hotel and never returned to the rental company. Tom told the accounting group to deduct the entire cost of the TV/VCR (which was a lot of money in 1985) from my paycheck. Here’s why:

After the completion of the two week trip in the Southwest, I had to complete my first expense report. It was all new to me. I dutifully produced all of my receipts and recorded the exact amounts on my expense report and turned it into Tom, who was to provide an approval before it was turned into accounting. As it turned out, Tom didn’t care for my expense report and gave it back to me for correction. Apparently, what I claimed for per diem expenses, the actual money I spent, was far too low in comparison to what he had claimed. He told me to claim the maximum allowable per diem regardless of whether or not I spent that much or not. I was uncomfortable with doing so and had to get advice from someone. I confided in a higher level manager, one person for whom I held a great deal of respect and a person I had befriended prior to and during the trip. I told him of the situation and asked for his advice. He seemed disappointed but told me to go ahead and do what Tom told me to do. Apparently, Tom was reprimanded and that was the reason he retaliated by telling accounting to deduct the TV/VCR against my pay.

As a youngster of 22 years old, I was learning how to play the system and screw the company.

Pay as a Full-Timer

According to published reports of initial salaries for graduates coming out of my graduating class, I received the highest salary as a soon-to-be full-time Saturn employee.

Even though I was a salaried employee, I would get paid time-and-a-half for any overtime work. Eventually, I got accustomed to and dependent on working about 10 hours of overtime a week. It was never a problem to do so and it required no approval. After all, GM was investing one billion dollars in Saturn and it had the money.

After one year of working in the real world, I had my first performance evaluation and got promoted one level. My base salary was increased by a whopping 13 percent.

In November 1987, the general assembly group was behind schedule in the completion of the plant layout because there had been so much infighting regarding the right direction to take for vehicle movement through the plant. Should it be a standard assembly line, flexible assembly lines (parallel nonmoving lines), or skillets (moving platforms)? This resulted in many layout changes and long delays. We were all told that we had to work through the Thanksgiving holiday. We had no choice. And so we did, perhaps about 80 to 100 salaried employees labored through the holiday week—Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—receiving triple time, time and a half, double time, and double time, respectfully.

We spent a lot of money that weekend.


So what was I learning as a 22-year-old? Entitlement. I was learning to make and spend as much as I could while working for the company, even if it included cheating the company. I was entitled to do so because we had one billion dollars, we were special people, and we were going to help save the U.S. automotive industry.

And yet we were supposed to be like Toyota? We weren’t. We were spendthrifts. With attitudes such as this, how can a company really be like Toyota—a company that by principle doesn’t believe in being spendthrifts, a company that prides itself in constantly reducing waste? We were creating waste, because we could afford it.

Even though in the early years there were some half-hearted attempts at living by Dr. Deming’s principles, learning from Toyota, and living by some of their principles, we never really determined who we were. We had no principles. We just knew we were “a different kind of company,” but we didn’t know why. We didn’t know what we stood for. In those early years, I knew very little of Dr. Deming. I knew very little of Toyota, until I organized a trip to the GM–Toyota New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant in California. I still knew nothing of the principles that guided Toyota to its success. Most of us didn’t.

As a company, we also didn’t know the guiding principles behind Toyota, even though we were trying to compete head on with them. The company was wasteful (and I’m sure it became more wasteful long after I left Saturn). It was what we were taught.

As I looked over my old Saturn documents, I stumbled upon two laminated pocket cards that were distributed to each employee during those early days. The four sides represented Saturn’s philosophy, mission, values, and equal employment opportunity commitment.

There were no principles. The values stated were:

  • Commitment to customer enthusiasm
  • Commitment to excel
  • Teamwork
  • Trust and respect for the individual
  • Continuous improvement

While these are excellent values (they were further defined on the cards given to us), there was nothing regarding the constant reduction of waste in writing and in practice. We completely missed the boat on this. We really couldn’t focus on competing with the likes of Toyota without believing in and abiding by the principle of constant reduction of waste, because there was no need to with GM footing the bill. This was the start of Saturn’s demise.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.