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Theodore on Flex, Fun and Focus

It is going to be standard on all GM vehicles in the U.S. and Canada by the end of ’07. Its technology and service are also offered by non-GM companies, including Lexus. And while there have been and are some competitors (the business of a cross-town rival closed down before it was up and running), OnStar is one of the brightest things GM has going.

With some 34 years’ experience in the auto industry and a list of cars worked on that could create its own hall of fame (Ford GT, Mustang, second-generation Chrysler minivan, PT Cruiser, etc., etc., etc.) Chris Theodore knows more than a little bit about cars and trucks. And having worked at all of the major car companies in Detroit—including even American Motors Corp.—Theodore also knows something about the procedures, politics, and processes of large organizations. Although he’d retired from Ford in 2004 where he’d been vice president-Advance Product Development, he’s back into the fray, now as vice chairman of ASC Inc. (www.ascglobal.com; Southgate, MI), a specialty vehicle design, engineering and manufacturing company that has more than 1,000 employees at 10 facilities in the U.S.

FLEXIBLE & LEAN. One of the things that Theodore is involved with is ASC’s plan to build a highly flexible manufacturing facility for low-volume cars. The idea is that creating a plant that “doesn’t overly rely on automation” with an annual volume of 50,000 units would provide the opportunity for OEM customers to have vehicles cost-effectively produced in volumes from 5,000 to 10,000 each. Theodore acknowledges that the OEMs are all working to increase the levels of flexibility that they have in their manufacturing plants, but he points out that their approach is to have 250,000-unit-per-year factories that will turn out four or five models each. “There is still a market out there for cars that sell 5,000 to 10,000 units a year; they can create a halo image for these companies,” he says. By having several manufacturers source through ASC, “We get capacity utilization; they get the product they need.” The proverbial double-win, and something that is eminently do-able even in an environment characterized by over-capacity—after all, most of the overcapacity was built when people were thinking in terms of volume runs like that of the Ford F-Series when it was on a blazing roll. 

Theodore has headed up a number of teams in his day. One of the most remarkable is the team that created the Ford GT from scratch within 28 months. Reflecting on that experience and others he’d had led him to develop the concept of “lean product creation,” of having small, change-oriented teams that can rapidly create new products. Although he acknowledges that there are examples of this sort of approach—he also cites the Pontiac Solstice—he points out, “Making this habitual and ever-improving takes time. Lean product creation is like lean manufacturing—you don’t do this overnight.”

FUN & FOCUS. One of the things that Theodore has learned about the business is that it is essential that people on teams enjoy what they’re doing, and that there is a vision that is shared among them. Speaking to the responsibilities of managers, he says, “I think if you make it”—by which he means work—“an enjoyable experience, people are willing to do more. You’ve got to have a vision of where you are going, you’ve got to have a positive attitude, no matter how difficult the situation is, you’ve got to see that vision, you have to have hope. You’ve got to get the team lined up and working toward that same common goal. It can be fun. You don’t have to take yourself too seriously. It doesn’t mean you don’t work hard.” Indeed, presumably those who are enjoying what they are doing will not only work hard, but do a better job while they are working. In addition to which, it seems perfectly plausible that in an industry where people describe cars and trucks with the words related to passion, chances are those who are passionately engaged in their work will create emotional products.

Another thing that Theodore emphasizes is customer focus, something that oftentimes gets lost in the daily grind, when procedures and policies get in the way of getting things done. “You’ve got to drive out the bureaucracy, you’ve got to drive out the over-administration and management and just focus on creating value for the customer,” Theodore insists. “Make sure everything you do is value-added for the customer. The customer doesn’t value you sitting in meetings. The customer doesn’t value you playing inside baseball, figuring out how to do something to make yourself better but doesn’t do anything for the customer.”

The importance of this is as simple as it is direct: “If you focus on the customer, they’ll reward you. That’s the point of business. They see the value in what you’re doing, profit will be your reward. If they don’t—then it’s going to be difficult.” And difficult is certainly an understatement in this competitive environment.