UpFront: Thinking About the Big Three
By Brian J. Hogan
All successful companies are alike in certain ways; they have motivated staff, creative managers, and an energized workforce. All unsuccessful, struggling companies appear unique. It seems as though we all find our own special ways to fail.
Because SME is headquartered in Dearborn, we spend a good deal of time thinking about the Big Three automakers and their travails. Almost everyone in these parts can give you reasons why Ford, Chrysler, and GM are in trouble, and has an opinion on what needs to be done to turn the companies around. Since the vision of what's wrong, and since what needs to be done to make things right is so clear to so many people, why are the Big Three still struggling?
Well, automotive manufacturing is a very complicated business. It's a very technical game that requires excellent styling, design engineering, and manufacturing engineering; it's capital-intensive, and skilled labor is critical to success. Also, automotive manufacturing requires an extended supply chain, and each element of that chain replicates the complexities found at the OEM level. Finally, perhaps most important, automotive manufacturing requires cooperation between individuals and organizations, and those organizations and individuals all face their own goals and challenges.
All of the acts, contracts, mistakes, misfortunes, and follies that got the Big Three into their present state have been spread down the supply chain. Individuals have built careers within the existing system of companies and Tiers, and have personal reasons to strive to keep that system in existence, not to blow it up.
The managers who must deal with the present state of things at the Big Three have the unenviable task of convincing the organizations and individuals within the Big Three, and in the supply chain, that there must be change in those organizations, and in the careers of individuals. It's easy to forget that companies are, above all, assemblies of people. Fear is not a good motivator—it paralyzes and inspires flight, not extra effort.
Managers at the Big Three are talented persons, and undoubtedly know what they need to do to place their companies on a sound footing. The only suggestion from this part of the world is that they really need to remember that unless there is broad commitment to improving things by most of the persons working for the Big Three, at all levels, improvements are not likely to happen. Getting better is a matter of small victories won day-by-day in the office and on the floor. Grand designs are for Field Marshals; battles are won by taking one muddy field after another.
And all that's also true of businesses other than the automotive industry.
This article was first published in the October 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.