David E. Cole, chairman for the Center for Automotive Research (CAR; Ann Arbor; www.cargroup.org) is blunt: "We're in a very chaotic period." We is mainly the Big Three. Large numbers of retirees means experience and capability are gone. Possibly to the supply base. So the OEMs go to suppliers to get people. Suppliers need to help their customers more. They need the experience and capability. So there's flux there. More programs are being launched. Product lifecycles are shorter. And the launches and products must be. . .flawless. There isn't an alternative. The competition doesn't allow it. "Better/faster/cheaper" is a way of work, not a slogan. Legacy costs and health care. Overcapacity. Strong products (and customer-friendly financial deals) from companies that didn't even seem to matter not that long ago. Chaos may be too weak a word.
Cole is nothing if not a person who is looking for solutions. He's not given to rolling out with a list of endless woe. That doesn't accomplish anything. And if there's one thing that the domestic industry—OEMs and suppliers alike—needs right now it's the means by which they can overcome these problems in a fast, efficient way. Cole believes that there is something that can help. Something that people aren't always good at. But something that needs to be embraced and employed, routinely and regularly: In a word, Collaboration. He acknowledges that people are people, and people often don't like to collaborate with one another: "It's almost an unnatural act." But he points out that given today's chaotic environment—plenty to do with seemingly too few to do it—there probably isn't a good alternative to collaboration. Cole posits that someone faced with doing a job in a week that would have heretofore required a month is likely to get over his or her resistance to collaboration because the alternative is failure.
One part of this is cultural. Individuals have to learn to work more closely with one another. This is no longer one of those exercises that occur for about 20 minutes after the training program is over. This has to become a way of work in the industry. Another part of this is organizational. Cole suggests that some companies are operating with structures that are no longer appropriate due to various factors, from downsized staffs (i.e., the people who used to do this or that are no longer in the office down the hall) to improvements in technology. Cole is particularly insistent that when it comes to collaborative product development, technology tools are key. He cites, for example, a PLM system from Campfire Interactive (Ann Arbor; www.cfi2.com; he's on the board), which offers, he says, remarkable ease of use and the ability for there to be real-time collaboration among parties. Cole says that one of the problems with many existing technology solutions is that they are difficult to implement and use. When you have a tough job to do, what's the likelihood that you'd want to deploy tools that are themselves difficult?
Collaboration is about information. Cole says that companies have gotten pretty good at moving materials through their factories. Now they've got to become as good at moving information—the right information to the right place at the right time—in order to compete. The alternative? Irrelevance—at best.