To Saturn and Back…


She looked like the manager who had just briefed us on the company that morning. Now she had the apron on in addition to her corporate suit, looking out of place behind the counter serving lunch.

As if knowing what I was thinking, she said “Yes, this is my other duty!” and plunked some gravy onto a staff’s food tray.

Apparently managers are expected to serve lunch as well in Saturn (by the way, I am talking about the Saturn motor company, not the planet)

“Ok”, I had thought. These things were supposed to impress upon me. Yet strangely I felt oddly detached and devoid of awe. In my opinion, it was fine for managers to serve their subordinates but it was not an earth-shattering fact. However, in an environment usually set for a pecking order, what Saturn did to turn the tables around and get the Managers to come down from their high horses and join the rest of the workforce, to serve them even, must had been quite epic.

When we came into their building that morning, the Spring Hill Tennessee, USA based company had displayed their latest vehicle models near the entrance: what else would they be doing? You would certainly not put them at the back! These cars were the reason for the company’s existence.

However, the story ran deeper. General Motors – the parent company had wanted to compete with the Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan. So enter stage right – the Saturn motor company that was run in a similar manner like the Japanese companies. The cars were smaller, heck…Saturn even called them ‘different’.

Spring Hill was chosen as the site of the factory with a sizable chunk of the population there supplying the labour. The initial core expertise came from General Motors of course. However from the get go, Saturn was run like a perpetual experiment in motion.

“We have a corporate university”, the manager had also said earlier, reflecting an uncommon method to retain staff. Corporate students sit for courses in the evenings and earned credits that could be used to enter external universities.

During lunch, we discussed about their methods and compare them to what similar companies were doing. Saturn was building an ecosystem for their workforce’s development. Its ability to compete was directly related to how dedicated its people were in pursuing success in the market. Dedication in turn was earned via a set of support systems that allowed the individual to feel at home, to feel encouraged in self development and to be immersed in a relatively non hierarchical culture. Heady stuff!

And the results showed: Saturn got to be so successful in its corporate approaches that they were able to compete with the Japanese manufacturers for a share in the US market.

However rather than just rattle the Japanese companies, Saturn actually did an unthinkable: it actually grabbed the market share from General Motors. Yes…it competed with the parent company!

And that sadly marked the beginning of the end for Saturn. General Motors closed down the company in 2010, effectively killing a competitor which it had helped create.

Oh, the irony!

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the manager in the apron.

I suppose she would have relinquished both her duties as the manager and lunch server. In an environment where corporate culture and experimentation coexist, it was good to see human factors and good will being exercised and considered. But by those same tokens but seen from General Motors’ perspectives, Saturn also paid dearly and unfairly for its efficiency in the market.

Companies come and go. Great companies sustain and stay around longer. Saturn’s demise was after only 25 years since its inception. It was a brief life, no doubt caused by an unclear vision of General Motors and the inability to decipher market dynamics. Saturn had the financial backing and muscles to implement its corporate culture and various workforce benefits and operating principles. But when it came to dollars and “sense”, its very success against the hand that fed it ultimately became responsible for its demise.

And no “corporate apron” in the world however well meaning and large can save it.

So here are the points to take home:

  • Check your basis and reason for being.
  • Check them always.
  • Check them well.
  • Make sure they map properly to your operating principles and culture.
  • Commit and persevere.
  • And reach out and sustain your successes!

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