Howes: GM veteran comes full circle with the Toyota way

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills – Mark Hogan is no stranger to unusual assignments.

In 1985, when the Japanese threat to Detroit metal seemed a presumptuous joke to the head-in-the-sand crowd, he landed in California on orders from General Motors Corp. to study how Toyota Motor Corp. does what it does and how it does it so well.

In the 1990s he led GM do Brasil, the Detroit automaker's largest unit in South America, and helped develop the Toyota-inspired Blue Macaw assembly plant concept. The project influenced the next generation of General Motors Corp. assembly plants, from Russia, Poland and the former East Germany to China, Thailand and Argentina.

Now, he's deep into arguably the most unusual assignment of all: He's the only American, and one of three independent directors, to sit on Toyota's 15-man board of directors. His appointment last year is a response by President Akio Toyoda to the Japanese juggernaut's global recall scandal and his belief that Toyota needs to diversify its leadership.

"What Akio wants me to do is visit as many plants, suppliers, even dealers and give him my perspective," Hogan, 63, said in an interview this week from his Bloomfield Hills office. "He wants a different perspective. Akio knew he had to globalize the board and the vision of Toyota executives.

"It's pretty full-time," Hogan says, describing a schedule that takes him to Japan one week per month, plus what Toyota calls "go and see" visits around the world. "They do want me to go to China; they do want me to go to Thailand; they do want me to go to Europe. I'm trying to balance it all.

"Toyota is without a doubt the most manufacturing-centric company I've ever come across. When Toyota makes a decision, it's how do we manufacture it well."

The gig on Toyota's big board is a fitting capstone for Hogan, a 31-year GM veteran who left in 2004 to become president of Magna International Inc. The Austro-Canadian auto supplier later vied with a Russian partner to gain control GM's Adam Opel AG amid the Detroit automaker's global meltdown.

But it's Toyota, as much as GM, that shaped Hogan's long automotive career — not because he ever drew a regular paycheck from the Japanese automaker, but because he became an ardent evangelist for adapting its production system to GM's needs.

GM and Toyota founded New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in 1984 on the site of GM's shuttered assembly plant in Fremont, Calif. A year later, Hogan and a small team from GM arrived to study a production system built around a slavish commitment to continuous improvement.

GM's goal, Hogan says, was to learn how to competitively build a small car for the U.S. market, an elusive goal that too often clashed with the rigid work rules and costs associated with the United Auto Workers.

"Our job was to eat, sleep and breathe the Toyota Production System," he said. "We became known as the NUMMI Commandos" — the in-house experts who would introduce the Toyota way to GM, the precursor to the General Motors production system dubbed "GMS."

They succeeded. After then-GM CEO Jack Smith dispatched Hogan to Brazil to replace Rick Wagoner, Hogan sent a team to NUMMI with instructions to study the production system and prepare to install it in Brazil.

They did, forming a template that GM would implement and modify over the next decade as it executed a global expansion pushed by Jack Smith. The world — defined throughout most of Smith's GM career as the "open world" and the "close world" — had changed.

The Berlin Wall was down, opening Central and Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had disintegrated. China was encouraging foreign investment in what would become a huge consumer market. And global automakers scrambled for profitable positions grounded in cost-effective production.

GM replicated the lessons learned at NUMMI around the world, just not at home. The UAW resisted, its leadership largely in denial about the competitive threat bearing down on the oligopoly of Detroit's three automakers and the union monopoly in their U.S. plants.

Just ask Hogan. In an April 1998 speech to the Society of Automotive Engineers, he outlined Project Yellowstone, the North American adaptation of the Brazil-inspired Blue Macaw that GM hoped to implement in Lordstown and new plants planned for Lansing.

GM wanted competitive work rules, a single union classification and a cooperative relationship with the UAW. Then-President Steve Yokich exploded, Hogan says, and called Rick Wagoner: "You gotta' get him outta' there," Yokich fumed.

The GM CEO obliged, acutely sensitive to anything that might worsen strained relations with the union. Within months Hogan was reassigned to lead e-GM, a new business unit aiming to harness burgeoning Internet and satellite applications for cars and trucks.

Ancient history, that, but a marker of just how deeply Toyota's production system influenced GM — and the guy who helped bring it to Detroit's No. 1 automaker because it works. 222-2106Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at