By on May 15, 2013

25 years ago on this very day, a living God graced us with his feline presence: Howie Makem. The quality cat. World famous ambassador to all things GM is celebrating his birthday today.
Back in the good old days of the 1980’s, GM needed inspiration for their pursuit of quality. At Ford, quality was job one. Chrysler offered a long warranty. Toyota, Honda and Nissan were at the forefront of lean production methods, and Europe offered Volvos and Benzes that were made out of Nordic metal and recycled German Messerschmitts. GM had the Chevy Citation.

It was decided that something had to be done. Special committees were formed and within a matter of weeks, the belching black smoke that came out of the roof of GM headquarters via a Chevrolet Chevette diesel signified a new initiative for the company.

A human sized cat with the “head of a Datsun”, as lineworker Ben Hamper put it, was given a plastic cape and marching orders to change GM quality by any means necessary.

This meant walking around factories and waving. No, that last sentence is not a joke. GM hired the then un-named Quality Cat to walk around and wave to all the assembly line workers while they were busy installing rivets on trucks whose designs dated to the Nixon era.

It worked in much the same way as putting various small flags on Oldsmobiles made them more competitive with imports. The line workers cheered on their new savior for all things quality, and were even given the rare privilege of naming the human sized, cape wearing mascot.

Picture Courtesy of flintexpats.com

“Management announced that they would reward the most creative of these entries with a week’s use of a company truck. Hot damn! The eventual winner of the contest was a worker who stumbled upon the inspired moniker Howie Makem. Sadly, my intriguing entry, Wanda Kwit, finished way the hell down the list somewhere right between Roger’s Pussy and Tuna Meowt.” (click here for the full story)

A star had been born. At least for a short while. Rumor has it that Howie Makem’s popularity was soon a liability in the insular GM universe that was the 14th floor, and a long line of enemies soon emerged.

GM unfortunately had three other feline Howies vying for CEO Roger Smith’s attention at the time. Howie Rakem, assistant to GM’s Chief Financial Officer. Howie Fakem, lead engineer for the Cadillac Cimarron, and Howie Takem, chief architect for the Hamtramck plant which required the condemnation and eviction of over a thousand Poletown residents.

The three Howies considered the idea of a quality cat to be about as welcome as a stupid dog, and quietly gave Howie his walking papers.

Since then Howie Makem is rumored to have moved to Reno where he has decided to reach out to the greater GM community along with fans the world over. So please. say a happy birthday to Howie today, and perhaps offer him a little kibble for all the good work he did back in the day.

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18 Comments on “Happy Birthday To…...”


  • avatar
    autobahner44

    Ben Hamper’s book, “Rivethead” was hilarious. I recall him describing how the rank and file workers at the GM plant would throw bolts at the Quality Cat. Thanks for bringing back the memories. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that’s ever worked in a factory. Back in college, I worked as a casual at the Jeep factory. I witnessed a guy repeatedly run a fork lift, tines high like a charging bull, into pallets of parts, as the crowd cheered…

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      “I witnessed a guy repeatedly run a fork lift, tines high like a charging bull, into pallets of parts, as the crowd cheered…”

      Damn… that really pisses me off.

  • avatar
    segfault

    Rivethead is a classic. I highly recommend reading it for anyone who is an auto enthusiast or a businessperson.

  • avatar
    mtypex

    Hey, those small flags on Oldsmobiles made them truly international. Have a good one, Howie.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Wasn’t Howie ultimately replaced by the UAW’s Dewie Dickem, the giant inflatable rat?

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I remember the two day, offsite quality kick off training I attended in the fall of 1989 where I worked.
    We didn’t have a mascot yet, but were treated to videos of quality heroics about workers who saved the day by taking bold and decisive actions when things started to go wrong. This was not how things worked at our company, and I realized that the whole quality program woould either be very successful or go down in flames. There would be no middle ground.
    It took about two years to flame out despite copious amounts of money spent on it. At least weren’t subjected to costumed characters in capes. Then came re-engineering. Now that was really bad from the get go.

  • avatar
    April 5

    It worked just as well when Republicans came up with WIN buttons…

    (not very well)

  • avatar
    mikey

    I don’t think we had the “quality cat” in Canada. A moose,or a baby seal,might be more fitting.

    We did have a thing called the “Quality Circle meetings”. They started out as voluntary, and unpaid. Attendance was poor. As in nobody showed up. So management decided to have such meetings voluntary paid, as in O.T. Attendance picked up dramaticly. The meetings also become a platform for all the “wanabe management”. Translated to plant language such folks were refered to as “Baggies or Bone Smokers”. The Baggies, and the wannabe union guys competed,quite vocally for floor time at these “quality circle meetings”

    To perfectly honest,it was quite entertaing for us workers,that had zero aspirations for either a union, or a management position. At the time I had two kids, and a massive morgage. A half an hour of O.T. sitting on my butt, bought me a case of beer on pay day. A rare treat in those days. Soon, everybody wanted to be part of the Quality Circle. You had to fight for a chair.

    Management, in thier infinite wisdom concluded that the “Quality Circle” meetings needed some tweaking. The new Quality Circle would consist of the hand picked few. {see above under Baggies,and Bone smokers} The O.T was cut for the rest of us.
    From that point onward “Quality Circle” was refered to as the weekly circle jerk. The participants of said meetings,were refered to in less pleasant terms. Plant humour can be quite crude.
    Like all the programs before,and all the ones after,the lifespan was 6 months to a year. But the “Quality Circle” did buy me a couple of “two fours”

    • 0 avatar
      MK

      Holy shit…I am SO glad I work in medical device / pharma quality. Those kinds of stories piss me off.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      If you’ve read The Reckoning by David Halberstam, you know where quality circles came from. Too bad Halberstam is no longer with us. He’d have another Pulitzer prize for writing a book on how American companies botched their versions of quality circles.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Wonder if GM ever considered part of the problem was shitte components as well? Lowest dollar squeezed to the penny suppliers… Crap expertly assembled is still crap.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Back in the ’80s GM owned some of its suppliers, like Delco-Remy and AC-Delco. Delco-Remy was spun off first, then AC-Delco was spun off as Delphi, with GM retaining the ACDelco name without the hyphen. As someone said in another thread, the supplier issue may cause a return to vertical integration with automakers making their own parts again, but if history is any guide, you won’t notice any difference in GM parts.

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    RIVETHEAD. Says everything about the old Detroit. A talented writer and journalist workin’ on the line and gettin’ drunk on beer every night into the third generation. As a youth I worked next to some of these guys. They were capable of so much more, but the assembly line money was just too good.

    Roger (Smith) and out,

    Jimbob


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