A Not Very Promising Beginning

Back in the heady years of 1980s, General Motors was far and away the world’s largest automaker. They were responsible for producing 7 out of every 10 cars sold in the United States.

However, General Motors had one very big problem.

Namely, the cars that they churned out at the time were massively unreliable. In comparison to the extremely reliable cars being imported into the country by the likes of Toyota, they could be considered total heaps.

An old, abandoned GMC vehicle, or one right off the assembly line? Back in ’80s, it would have been hard to tell! 

A Doomed Management Ethos

In large part, this sorry state of affairs was due to GM’s management style. Their ethos was just to keep the production line running at all costs.

In keeping with this ethos, managers would hover behind assembly line workers and start yelling at them whenever they started to get behind. So, if someone made a mistake (and we’re talking even a BIG mistake like forgetting to put on brakes or installing an engine backwards), they would still pass the car on down the assembly line where that mistake would continue to get built on top of.

The end result was that huge numbers of nonfunctioning cars would need to be towed off the line to a nearby lot. There, they would be taken apart, the mistake found and fixed, and then the whole thing would be reassembled. What’s more, all of this work was usually performed by people who weren’t qualified to do any of it. Even these “fixed” cars didn’t work all that great.

Thus it was that GM garnered a reputation for churning out some serious clunkers.

From BangShift.com – A view inside a General Motors assembly plant from sometime in the ’80s

A Remarkable Venture

In 1984, General Motors undertook a fairly remarkable joint venture with Toyota. Together, they reopened an automotive plant in Fremont, California that General Motors had closed a few years before.

It should be noted that General Motors had closed that plant expressly because its workforceaccording to that workforce’s own union leader – was the very WORST in the automobile industry!

Booze and drugs use was rampant on the production line. Workers were constantly fighting with management. They were strikes all the time. Employee absenteeism rates were through the roof. Add this to GM’s “keep the line moving at all costs” mentality  and the whole plant was a disaster top to bottom.  

As hard as it is to believe, when General Motors and Toyota went to reopen this plant, they made a decision that raised many an eyebrow in the industry: they decided to hire back the same lousy workers that they had fired just a few years before.

This time, however, the plant would be run under Toyota’s management not General Motors’.

From Toyota – Reopening ceremony of the General Motors assembly factory in Fremont, California 

A Radical Transformation

Unlike GM, who emphasized quantity over quality, Toyota worked the other way around. They focused first on quality. Their watchwords were teamwork and collaboration.

At every station along the assembly line, they installed a nylon cord hanging from the ceiling. When a worker made or spotted a mistake, they would pull that cord. A song they selected would actually play from a speaker – and their team leader would come over beside them to help them troubleshoot the problem.

Most of the time it could be corrected with out stopping the line. But if need be, they could pull the cord again, then line would be stopped, and the mistake would be righted. With one more yank of the cord, the line would be up and running again.

And after just three months of implementing this new system, the Fremont plant and its previously lousy workers were utterly transformed. The cars coming off the line now had a near perfect quality rating. The assembly line workers reported that,
for the very first time, they enjoyed coming to work and were proud of what they produced. Grievances and absenteeism plummeted. There was no more drinking and drugging on the job.

EVERYTHING was different.

From Auto Evolution – General Motors workers smiling. Not something you would have seen before Toyota management practices were introduced.

A New Concept: Grace

What made that difference? Well, the church word we use is grace: overflowing love and forgiveness.

Do you see how much grace was introduced into the General Motors system when those managers went from hovering behind  and yelling to moving in alongside those workers to help them?

Those previously wretched employees now had grace to admit they’d made a mistake. Grace to admit they’d got it wrong. Grace to admit that things weren’t perfect.  

Rather than facing wrath and condemnation for those mistakes and imperfections, there was now the possibility of change and transformation. Everything could be set right.

And this is just a car assembly plant in Fremont, California we’re taking about here! 

The transformation that grace allows isn’t just for automobile makers – it’s for you and me too!

A New Way for Us Too

In the very first chapter of Gospel of Matthew, the gospel writer quotes the prophet Isaiah. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas Eve service you’ve definitely heard this verse before:

Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’

A lot of people get distracted by the whole virgin thing. That, however, is decidedly NOT the point of Matthew incorporating this quote into his work.

The point of this prophecy is that, in Jesus, God is WITH us. Grace has been introduced into OUR system, into our world. Overflowing love and forgiveness is now the context in which we live and move and have our being.

We have the grace to admit we’ve made mistakes. Grace to admit we’ve got it wrong. Grace to admit that things aren’t perfect.

And, rather than facing wrath and condemnation for those mistakes and imperfections, the doorway to change and transformation – both of ourselves and our world – has been opened. By the grace of the God who comes down to be with us in Jesus, everything can set right.

That is what Isaiah prophecy is about. In fact, that is what the whole Christmas story is about.

May it also be what we’re about!