Friday, September 19, 2014

General Motors History: Richard Grant, Buck Weaver, and Sloanism

a camshaft transfer  machine

            Kettering brought more to GM than just technical expertise:  he brought talent that made crucial contributions to GM’s efforts to surpass the Ford Motor Company during the Interwar years. One of his closest associates at Delco was Richard H. Grant, and it was Grant who drew on his experiences at National Cash Register and the sales philosophy of John Patterson to teach GM to sell – first Chevrolets and then the entire product line. Known as “Dynamic Dick” and the “Little Giant,” Grant was one of America’s great salesmen. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, Grant learned to sell at NCR, became its general sales manager in 1913, later moved to Delco and Frigidaire, and in 1923 joined Chevrolet as sales manager. In 1929, Grant became a GM vice-president and was one of the top four or five executives of the firm during the 1930s, with memberships on six policy groups.
            The “Little Giant” played major role in reorganizing the distribution system at GM, eliminating distributors who previously held large territories and had control over local dealers. He was an orator and showman, but beneath the surface Grant was a careful, systematic thinker who implemented market research, accounting, and training procedures throughout the corporation. Grant had learned seven fundamentals of sales from NCR’s John Patterson that were subsequently instilled into GM personnel:
1. Have the right product.
2. Know the potential of each market area.
3. Constantly educate your salesmen on the product, making them listen to canned demonstrations and learn sales talks by heart.
4. Constantly stimulate your sales force, and foster competition. among them with contests and comparisons.
5. Cherish simplicity in all presentations.
6. Use all kinds of advertising.
7. Constantly check up on your salesmen, but be reasonable with them and make no promises you can’t keep.13
Grant further refined Alfred Sloan’s notion of using R. L. Polk Company’s monthly state registration data to closely monitor subtle shifts in consumer demand. By the late 1920s, this information would be relayed to William Knudsen’s production group, thus ensuring that the automobiles made would be the kind that customers would quickly buy off dealer’s lots.
Closely related to Grant’s efforts were those of the customer research group, led by Buck Weaver.14 Weaver and his associates formulated a set of questionnaires aimed at asking the broad question of “What do customers want?” A large number of potential questions were mailed memorandum books in which every aspect of design and engineering was queried. Among the questions asked were what should be the shape of the radiator; what designs are too conservative and too extreme; should there be running boards on cars; and most significantly, how should a car be sold. For buyers of the early 1930s, the results of the surveys pointed to their priorities for cars that were dependable and economical. For the average American, speed and the power of the engine seemed to be the least of their concerns.15
With the advent of Alfred Sloan’s idea of a car “for every purse and purpose,” and his choice of executive leadership in the likes of Kettering, Grant, and production genius William Knudsen, General Motors came to dominate the automobile industry. In the third phase of the production process, from the mid-1920s into the 1950s, Fordism was modified and intensified, thus evolving into what became known as “Sloanism.” Sloanism can be thought of as an ongoing structural process by which an organization is shaped and decisions made in such a way as to facilitate effective positive change in the workplace and marketplace. By the 1930s, Sloanism translated into committees that set policies and decentralized operating divisions managed by individuals.
Sloanism was an idea at GM as early as 1925, first introduced on the shop floor in 1928, and fully implemented by 1932 and 1933. With machines that were flexible, rapid model change was now possible. Some assembly line positions were reskilled under Sloanism, as “vital maintenance and repair workers made up nearly 10 percent of the industry’s labor force.”16 To fit machines to new models, a new class of mechanics was created. They were paid to think, solve problems and define the task that they had to accomplish.17 Flexible mass production marked an important change for organized labor, but Fordism remained the productive motif for most Americans working in automobile assembly plants.18 Stephen Meyer noted the continuity: “The Sloanist flexible production system retained the Fordist features of routinized work and work processes; it remained monotonous, repetitive, and machine paced.”19 For semiskilled and unskilled workers, the new machines furthered degraded skills and intensified the pace of the assembly line.
In the 1920s, managers and foremen aimed to increase output per worker to meet the insatiable demand for cars. Though the annual model change appealed to the American consumer, it frustrated the auto worker. “The annual model change meant several days or weeks of fussing and fumbling until they adjust to the new routines and rhythms of their work.”20 As Joyce Shaw Peterson indicated, early autoworkers sometimes opted to keep doing the same monotonous job in order to “space out” or daydream, rather than having to learn a new job.21 The increased demand was met with a speed-up of the assembly line. James Flink noted that “Sloanism thus had the effect of intensifying the amount and pace of dehumanizing work in automobile manufacturing . . . there was degradation of labor to lower skill levels and intensification of the production process.”22
Flexible mass production persisted into the Great Depression. At General Motors, the process paid off; during the Depression they reported profits every year.23 Indeed, by the late 1930s GM was no longer considered as “Big Business,” but as “Colossal.” Even during the darkest days of the Great Depression, the firm had over 250,000 employees working in 110 manufacturing plants located in 14 states and 18 countries.24
By the mid-1920s the GM strategy of a car for every purse and taste was markedly cutting into Ford sales. GM exemplified what the power of technology and organization, harnessed together, could do to dominate the American automobile industry. Chevrolet, the lowest priced of the GM models, was not only a key to GM’s success, but emerged as the car for everyman by the end of the 1920s. Chevrolet was created by race driver Louis Chevrolet and Billy Durant before WWI. Originally an expensive automobile with a 6-cylinder engine, it later became a low-priced car with a smaller engine. During GM’s financial crisis in 1920, discussions took place during which it was proposed that Chevrolet would be dropped as a product line, but in 1922 William Knudsen was hired to head production and Richard Grant sales. By 1927, Chevrolet had outsold Ford and became the largest customer for the various GM parts subsidiaries, like Delco-Remy, Fischer, Harrison, and Guide Lamp.25 The 1929 Chevrolet, with features that included the reliable “stove-bolt” six (labeled so because of the stove bolts which held many of the engine parts together), set the benchmark for low-priced cars. As shown in Table 3, by the mid-1930s Chevrolet sales consistently outpaced Ford’s, reflecting both GM’s ascendancy and Ford’s relative decline in the American, and indeed world market place.
Table 3: Ford vs. Chevy Passenger Car Production, 1928-1942

Source:  Ray Miller, Chevrolet:  The Coming of Age, 1911-1942 (Oceanside, CA: Evergreen Press, 1976), p.319.

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