Eric Mayne's Blog

Smug puts the 'ug' in ugly

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A distant relative who works for a Detroit auto maker smirks gleefully as he ponders the state of affairs at Toyota, where a new quality scandal seems to greet each sunrise.

“Looks good on ’em,” this fellow says.

But smugness hardly becomes him. Or any other industry stakeholder that takes delight in Toyota’s trials.

Smugness puts the ‘ug’ in ugliness.

It reminds me of the sickening arrogance that once pervaded the shop floor at GM, Ford and Chrysler. More befitting a schoolyard bully, such haughtiness bred a sense of entitlement that contributed mightily to a calamitous decline in work ethic.

I witnessed this first-hand while working my way through college as an assembler and clerk. Line saboteurs were celebrated as heroes and office workers amused themselves by trying to pop the mufflers on company vehicles.

These behaviors weren’t condoned, just tolerated with a chuckle or a shrug. And you can do that when you dominate the market.

But when you lose appreciation for your meal ticket, you get your ticket punched.

That’s what Toyota did to the once-vaunted Big Three, maintaining a laser-like focus on its customers from CEO to sweeper.

The upside is Detroit, albeit grudgingly, learned from the resultant butt-kicking. And while some vestiges of entitlement survive in individual attitudes and the audacious “Buy American” campaigns (tell someone at Toyota’s San Antonio plant he’s not American; then duck) there’s been a line-side revolution.

This, too, I witnessed first-hand. It happened on a visit, not long ago, to Chrysler’s pickup plant in Warren, MI. A cavernous site once known by the appropriately notorious moniker, “Dodge City,” it is rejuvenated.

Workers, it seems, have turned the tables on slackerdom. There is a palpable sense of urgency.

I’m left with the impression that anything short of a best effort is met with some brand of old-school castigation, delivered by a colleague, not a supervisor.

And there is genuine admiration for the trucks that roll off the line.

Time will tell if the lesson has been learned.

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