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Five Days in August

Annually, leaders from the auto industry trek up to the Grand Traverse Resort to attend the Management Briefing Seminars held by what is now a rather extensive group of organizations: the University of Michigan’s Center for Professional Development and its Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation and the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan.

Annually, leaders from the auto industry trek up to the Grand Traverse Resort to attend the Management Briefing Seminars held by what is now a rather extensive group of organizations: the University of Michigan’s Center for Professional Development and its Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation and the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan. Essentially, there are two parts of the weeklong event. The first part of the week (Monday and Tuesday) is what I like to think of as the “tactical” presentations, during which people from OEM and supplier companies talk about actual practices that are being performed. The second half is the “strategic” session. The Big Picture. It was titled “Driving to the New Business Model: Collaboration, Speed and Value” (so if you think my use of the capital letters in the preceding line a bit pretentious, think again).

One of the most encouraging aspects of both parts of the week is that there is evidently a recognition that the world doesn’t revolve around the executives who, well, manage or something. Instead, the people who are actually involved in the process really matter. For example, among the presenters during the second half were:

  • Gary Convis, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, who spoke of his experience in the auto industry (from GM to Ford to NUMMI to Toyota), and the struggle that Toyota faces because those who understand the Toyota Production System the best, the Japanese management team, “is stretched very, very thin,” because of the number of plants the manufacturer has set up around the world. Convis explained, “Toyota has not yet developed a good way to transplant the unique Toyota culture except through one-on-one, daily coaching by someone who has lived and practiced the philosophy for many, many years. We must find a new way.” And when they do, they’ll really be good.
     
  • Wolfgang Bernhard, chief operating officer, Chrysler Group, who is spearheading the new product development system at Chrysler, which builds not only a new superstructure over the once-lauded Platform Team, but which provides it with a significant foundation in the form of the Chrysler Development System, which uses an 11-step quality gate approach that is meant to optimize activities from customer needs identification, through the design office to engineering and manufacturing, and to delivery.
     
  • Koki Hirashima, CEO, Honda of America Manufacturing, who stated, “The industry is still operating at near record levels—and it looks like total car and light truck sales will finish well above 16 million units. But I am not really qualified to talk about sales. Like many of you, I am a supply guy. I just build them.” And then he went about to explain how Honda (“we are a rather small company”) is using its global manufacturing resources to fulfill needs wherever they may be: like using a plant in the U.K. to supply CR-Vs to North America.
     
  • Gary L. Cowger, group vice president, Manufacturing & Labor Relations, GM. I’ve known him for a long time. He is a true asset to the industry. He can be funny (“Believe me, one expression you hardly ever used to hear at GM was, ‘Oh boy! The Harbour Report is out.’” The latest report shows that the Cowger-inspired Global Manufacturing System is making a positive difference); he can be with it (he played a clip from Jennifer Lopez’s song “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” that references the Escalade); he can be passionate and frank (“Look. I believe in this company. I’ve been with General Motors more than 36 years. But most importantly, I believe in our people. I’ve seen this company do great things. I’ve also seen it make mistakes.”).

It is often said that this industry is about product. Let’s not forget about the people who get that product to market.

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