Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Lean-manufacturing expert James Womack praises Ford Motor Co.’s attempts to consolidate its product- and process-development systems, but he’s less certain about the prospects for streamlining at formerly bankrupt General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

Womack, chairman of the non-profit Lean Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says at the Management Briefing Seminars that Ford engineers casually mentioned their initiative, and he asked if he could come to Dearborn, MI, to take a look.

“The Ford guys said they were going to try to turn over a new leaf” with a system that truly integrates product and process development, says Womack. He visited Dearborn two weeks ago for an informal presentation and says he left “very impressed.” Without revealing too many company secrets, he says the system is globally competitive.

“Let me just say Derrick Kuzak (Ford’s group vice president-global product development) and Joe Hinrichs (group vice president-global manufacturing) have really been trying this time to actually get it right,” Womack says in his speech.

The outspoken Womack has “been disappointed by Ford in the past,” especially when he declared in his ground-breaking 1990 book about manufacturing efficiency, “The Machine That Changed the World,” that Ford was demonstrating its ability to replicate a Japanese-style manufacturing efficiency system.

“Well, that was a false dawn. Boy, was I disappointed,” Womack says. “So I reserve the right to be disappointed” by the new system. He says Ford is “not trying to clone Toyota (Motor Corp.) but do a clean-sheet” approach to product and process development.

Also on the Tuesday panel with Womack was Bruce Hettle, executive director-manufacturing engineering at Ford. Hettle discussed the auto maker’s “One Ford” initiative to form “one team, one plan, one goal” for product-development success in all regions of the world.

Hettle says the system has unleashed a “cultural transformation” at Ford that realigns the functional organization around a single set of requirements, eliminating the long-established silo mentality.

“It’s amazing what this level of turmoil in the economy can do to bring organizations and people together when you have clarity of goals,” he says.

Womack says Ford’s new system successfully recognizes that a product-development system cannot succeed unless process is equally integrated.

During a break, he tells Ward’s he has no plans to visit GM or Chrysler, and that neither auto maker has extended an invitation.

“I think Chrysler has their hands full – they don’t need me,” he says. “Chrysler has such big problems – which are ownership, governance, cultural problems – a very high degree of difficulty.”

Womack says GM “does a good job when they can get focused and they have some consistency and continuity. It’s a much smaller company now.”

With regard to product development, Womack says GM “has been very inconsistent” over the last five years, demonstrating a keen understanding with some products; then flubbing others.

Asked whether GM and Chrysler will have to make more cuts beyond those already announced, Womack tells Ward’s, “The market will tell you that.

“All the legacy costs and the retirement and all that junk and the number of hours needed to run a factory, that pretty much has been taken care of. Why wouldn’t you be able to succeed? Because you have to have products that will fetch good money.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com