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Stretching Their Productivity as Well as Their Limbs, Autoworkers in Tennessee Go Japanese

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It’s 7:25 a.m. at Nissan Motors Co.’s new truck assembly plant. Rows of autoworkers clad in pale blue work shirts and dark blue trousers—uniforms provided gratis by the company—limber up with five minutes of light calisthenics performed to the taped accompaniment of soothing piano music. Following small-group pep talks at which demerits are ceremoniously handed out for just about everything (minus five points for missing a tire valve cap, minus one-half point for flecks of dust in the paint), chimes gently summon the work force to the assembly line.

Just another morning in the grimy industrial suburbs of Osaka, right? Wrong. This is Grand Ole Opry country, folks, 18 miles southeast of Nashville—bucolic Smyrna, Tennessee. Here, at Nissan Motors’ $660 million pickup-truck plant, which opened in June and will be formally dedicated this week, good ole boys and girls are learning that the art of Japanese management is actually quite scrutable. Leading the enlightenment is a former Ford Motor Company executive named Marvin Runyon, 58, who, as Nissan’s president of U.S. operations, has abandoned a jacket and tie in favor of a blue-collar outfit. One and all call him “Marvin.” “He’s everybody’s buddy around here,” says line worker Sylvia Watkins, 28. “We think of him as sorta like the daddy of the family.”

The Smyrna plant is the first steel-and-concrete step taken by Japan’s second biggest automaker to defuse anti-Japanese, protectionist sentiments (see box, page 41) by assembling cars in the U.S. with American labor. Runyon’s strategy is to boost productivity by encouraging employee participation in day-to-day decision making. “Most U.S. companies operate autocratically from the top down,” he says. “We try to manage from the bottom up.”

To help along change, Runyon has slashed the number of management levels from Detroit’s standard 12 to a more Japanese five. He’s eliminated such perks as executive washrooms, reserved parking spaces and private dining rooms (even he eats in the workers’ cafeteria). Anyone with a gripe can march into his office unannounced and sound off.

Hired in part for their ability to be idea-generating team players, Smyrna workers have already redesigned a chassis work station so they no longer have to bend while installing carpeting. At one technician’s suggestion, the company Christmas card will be mimeographed this year instead of expensively printed.

Nissan workers avoid assembly-line drudgery by alternating tasks and by acting as their own inspectors—albeit under the watchful eyes of 40 Japanese start-up specialists. The state-of-the-art factory boasts 220 “steel-collar” workers—laborsaving robots. The first trucks built during start-up training last spring were of such quality that the factory was able to open two months ahead of schedule. When the plant reaches full capacity next year, its 2,000 employees (“technicians” is the operative phrase) will roll 120,000 trucks a year out the door.

To learn firsthand, 381 Tennesseans were flown to Japan for at least six weeks of training sessions. Although some often found chairs too small, and one woman was horrified to discover that what she thought was a breaded hot dog on a stick was actually squid, the troops returned aglow with enthusiasm. “They taught us pride,” says Donna Hackney, 46, a technician on the hood line. Absenteeism and tardiness are nearly nonexistent at Smyrna, where an honor system prevails. Says Linda Bolinger, 37, “It blows my mind that I don’t have to punch a time clock.” Adds 15-year Ford engineering veteran John Shaw, “It’s a pleasure to come to a job where everyone pulls together. I go home a lot more peaceful.”

But Marvin Runyon’s proclaimed millennium has not pleased everybody. Though Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander hailed the plant at its 1981 ground-breaking ceremony as “the single most important new industry

that ever came to Tennessee,” hundreds of demonstrators vehemently protested the factory’s nonunion construction contract, throwing stones, deflating tires and shouting “Go home, Japs!” Some World War II vets caustically suggested Nissan Drive be renamed Pearl Harbor Boulevard. Smyrna residents are also worried that the town’s rapid expansion—since the plant opened, the population has swelled from 9,000 to 12,000—will despoil their rural way of life. “In another 10 years,” worries used-car salesman Ken Ford, 46, “this town will look like little Detroit.”

The United Auto Workers, mindful of its 197,000 laid-off members nationally and its weakened negotiating clout, has vowed to organize Smyrna’s nonunion shop. In fact, Smyrna starting wages average $2.65 less than the $11.75 an hour paid in Detroit. But Run-yon maintains that the cooperative management style, the generous benefits package and the prospect of longtime security make the UAW a fifth wheel. “The reasons for a union 35 years ago do not exist at the company today,” he insists. Labor leaders disagree. “Right now, Nissan has put on a good brainwashing program,” says Walter Whittemore, president of a UAW local at a Ford glass plant in Nashville. “But if wages are cut, there’s nothing the workers can do. As long as they’re without a contract, they’re at the mercy of the company.”

Workers are relying on Runyon’s word—and track record. Son of a Ford executive, he grew up a car nut in Fort Worth and Dallas and began working on the assembly line at age 18, installing headlights and grilles on Jeeps for $1.10 an hour. He earned his engineering degree at Texas A&M and in 1953 became a troubleshooter for Ford. At 33, he built his first Ford factory, in Lorain, Ohio, one year later launching another in St. Thomas, Ontario, which quickly surpassed Ford’s 21 other plants in quality control and cost efficiency. He rapidly earned a reputation as a hard-driven workaholic. “To survive at Ford you had to be tough and autocratic,” recalls Jerry Benefield, a colleague since 1962. “Marvin was both.” But attracted by Nissan’s dynamism, he signed on in 1980 for his biggest challenge.

For all his blue-collar affectations, Runyon maintains a chrome-plated life-style. He lives alone in the posh Sugartree section of Nashville (his wife died of a heart attack last year), is chauffeured to work most mornings in a Nissan “President”—a Cadillac-size luxury car not sold in the U.S.—and passes up company calisthenics for workouts in his home gymnasium.

Runyon’s test will come next spring, when the plant reaches full capacity and UAW plans to step up its organizing drive, which is now limited to pro-union radio spots and informal meetings off company grounds. But few of the 1,300 workers hired so far seem eager for union cards. The biggest hurdle is communicating with the 40 Japanese teachers, whose English is not as reliable as the cars they make. “They have a lot of trouble with our Southern slang,” remarks Tom Groom, an assistant manager in the paint plant. “A phrase like ‘That’s as fine as frog hair’ just confuses them.” No matter. Explanations are easily made at the popular new joint down the street, the Hama Japanese Restaurant, where the sushi is almost as fine as frog hair.