Relational Contracts and the Decline of General Motors
| Nicolai Foss |
The shifting fortunes in the international automobile industry over the last four decades have, for obvious reasons, been endlessly commented upon. Usually, the two leading protagonists in the various accounts of the dynamics of the industry are General Motors and Toyota, the former because of its conspicuous decline (GM’s share of the US market dropped from about 60 to about 20% over a 30 years period), the latter because it has been steadily growing and is now the world’s largest automaker.
Discussions of the relative performance of these two industrial giants sometimes focus on vacuous categories like “culture” and “capabilities.” More detailed accounts stress the short-termism of General Motor’s investment decisions, its arms-length supplier relations, and its obsession with narrowly defined, easily-measurable jobs. Toyota’s relative success is often explained in terms of the Toyota Management Model with its emphasis on broadly defined jobs, intensive lateral and vertical information flows, and emphasis on problem-solving on the shop floor. However, it is not immediately clear that GM did something very badly that Toyota did very well. The liabilities that led to the decline of GM were apparently were different from the assets that brought Toyota success.
In a new NBER paper, “Management Practices, Relational Contracts, and the Decline of General Motors“, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson argue, however, that GM and Toyota are directly comparable in terms of the relational contracts existing inside their corporate hieararchies and across the boundaries of these two companies, and that their differential performance is explainable in terms of the differences between the contracts. Relying on recent contract theory research on relational contracts (rather than the older, but neglected work of Harvey Leibenstein), Helper and Henderson reject a number of conventional explanations (e.g., that GM’s investment policy was oriented towards the short term), and convincingly argue that GM had difficulties understanding the nature and important role of relational contracts behind Toyota’s success and therefores truggled to implement similar relational contracts. They point to a number of reasons why relational contracts may be difficult to build, centering on problems of creating credible commitments and communicating clearly and suggest that these problems were rampant in GM. In all, a very nice read that can be used in a number of different classes (org theory, economics of the firm, strategic management). Highly recommended!
UPDATE: My colleague Henrik Lando draws my attention to Ben-Shahar and White’s 2005 paper on manufacturing contracts in the auto industry which tells a story that is consistent with the Helper and Henderson story. Here.