9/1/1998 | 3 MINUTE READ

Leading from the Front

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Less than a week after General Motors and the United Auto Workers entered into an uneasy peace that makes the Cold War seem like an exercise in restrained civility, Gary Henson, vice president, Large/Small Car, Jeep/Truck Assembly and Stamping Operations, Chrysler Corp., made a statement in the opening of his keynote address at the Next Generation Lean Manufacturing Systems and Materials session at the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation's annual executive briefing seminar in Traverse City, MI, that should have caused a collective gasp—at least among some of the manufacturing leaders at a few of the companies in the audience: "It's a myth that hourly people are the biggest impediment to lean manufacturing. Management at the plant level put up the biggest barriers to lean."

This could mean you.

Let's get one thing straight up front. Manufacturing at Chrysler is hard, demanding work, not for the weak of heart, muscle or mind. This is not the stuff of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." But nor is it "War of the Worlds." The Chrysler conditions and the people who work there aren't extraordinary. Nor are they ordinary. What they do there—and at other successful companies—is pay attention to all of the participants in what goes on.

Henson pointed out that lean manufacturing is a system, and as such it requires the full functionally of all elements. This is not just an issue of the technological system. In fact, Henson didn't even mention a machine tool, computer system or stamping line. (Henson was followed by John Adams, senior vice president, Honda of America Manufacturing, who said, "You must balance technology with people," and who discussed how associate involvement is the competitive advantage. Hank Lenox, director of the Ford Production System, commented that one of the advantages he thinks Ford has is that the relations with the union represented people around the world are "sound and strong. This would not be successful without the unions.")

People are vital to the success or instrumental to the failure of any organization. The responsibility of managers in this regard cannot be underestimated. Managers must create the environment. Set the tone. Provide the ways and means. They must set the stage and keep it set in response to changing scenes.

Organizations are people. How those people will behave is a direct consequence of the conditions that they operate within. Managers are responsible for those conditions.

At Chrysler, the understanding of the fundamental responsibility of management led all the way to the top, to chairman Robert Eaton. It was recognized that it was important to achieve lean production capabilities for the good of Chrysler. So Eaton, then-president Robert Lutz, and all of their direct reports—VPs, general managers, plant managers, production managers—got together for a two-day session. Presumably, the effect of this was that those in the room got religion, lean religion. They then set about to proselytize. They went back to their respective organizations and began the practice of cascading the learning about lean.

As is well known but little thought about is that learning is not passive. You can read all the books you can find on golf, but until you get out on the course and swing the club, you're not going to hit a hole-in-one.

Thinking is important, but it must be coupled with doing.

So part of Chrysler's lean learning involved the actual doing. This wasn't a case of managers going out on the floor of the plants and saying to the people, "This is what we are going to do. Now you go do it." They didn't just talk the walk, they actually took the steps. Henson admitted that in his own case he felt that it was vital that he have an up-close-and-personal experience of lean. As he put it, "Leadership is the key in changing the shop floor" and "Manufacturing leaders learn by doing."

Henson noted that UAW and Canadian Auto Workers people—both at the headquarters and local levels—were brought in to the lean program. They, too, learned lean. They understood how it is critical to the success of the corporation. And it probably had more than a little something to do with the interest that Daimler had in acquiring Chrysler.

Cooperation is key. No corporation, no company, no organization can be successful without all parties working toward the same ends. Leaders must lead from the front. The people behind them must understand where they are going and why. It has worked for Chrysler. Ford. To say nothing of the likes of Honda and Toyota. Some day it had better work for General Motors because otherwise the General is going to be busted down to a lower rank in the world automotive community.


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