When I first started out in the auto industry, companies managed their organiza- tions differently. I worked in a manufacturing plant and the bosses were, literally speaking, fully in charge. When they gave orders there was little room for discussion. It was easier not to ask questions and just do it.
I remember a maintenance foreman who wanted to find a defective underground drain. He picked up three men with shovels and marched them out to where he thought the drain was located. He spit out a wad of tobacco and told the men to start digging where it landed. The men, who had no idea what was going on, dug for awhile but found no drain. Finally one man asked what he was looking for. The foreman said he was looking for a drain. "Why didn't you say so; I know exactly where it is because I helped put it in," one man replied.
Those days are over. It just makes a lot more sense if you want to do something to tell people what's going on and get their input. It is almost always true that a person doing a particular job day-in and day-out will know more about the subtleties than someone from the front office.
There is no doubt in my mind that to maximize gains in productivity, quality, and cost reductions, this is how you must operate. Sure there are going to be people who refuse to participate, but in my experience most people like the challenge.
It may sound corny, but I believe that people like to feel what they're doing is important to the overall operation, and that they're not just a cog in some big machine.
There's no question that the team concept, developed in recent years and supported by the union and management, has resulted in vast operating improvements at the Big Three.
But I'm beginning to wonder, have we gone too far? I frequently visit managers who have the overall responsibility for running plant operations. When I ask questions about various aspects of their future plans, many answers I get are, "I don't know, it's being handled by the team."
I think we're losing sight of the fact that the team's effectiveness can only be maximized when it functions within a specific framework. Teams cannot be used to replace management responsibility because they are in no position to determine corporate strategy, product planning and investment priorities.
We operate in a highly competitive environment with ever-changing technology. Long-range plans should reflect corporate strategies to deal with this situation and include new process development requirements, product plans and capacity needs.
My sense is that managers are so taken up with the activities of their teams there is little forward planning. When I ask what process improvements they would make if they had the money, the likely answer would be "I don't know, the team is working on it." If I ask how their operation compares to their competitors in terms of productivity, manpower and quality, I would get the same answer.
What makes the problem even worse is that these managers surround themselves with people that are their spitting image.
I think the time has come in selecting managers when we must look beyond how many degrees they have, whether they have a great personality, or how good an after-dinner speaker they might be.
Potential managers should be developed and weeded out depending on how they handle a variety of assignments. Ultimately, those selected for upper management would have shown evidence of a competitive spirit and the capabilities of managing that go beyond just running an operation.
I'm not suggesting going back to the old ways, but I think we should find a middle ground if we are to be effective against foreign competition. - Stephan Sharf is a retired
vice president for manufacturing.
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