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Ideal & Real

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If you watch any amount of TV you see the car ads for various and sundry vehicles. Absent many of the local dealer ads, the images conveyed by these commercials could lead one to believe that auto is a creative, edgy, imaginative place where ideas are thrown off like sparks from a spot welding gun. Even the most innocuous vehicles are transformed into chariots of fire by these Madison Avenue magicians. The auto guys seem to be with it.

But I recently heard a rather disturbing story about the auto industry from a technology vendor. And I began to wonder about the image and the reality. The story goes that his company—and know that it is a respectable firm, not some industrial analogue of an outfit shilling its wares on 3:00 a.m. infomercials—had developed some new features and functions that could help vehicle assemblers save some significant money in their operations. So he talked to a person at one OEM company who is responsible for the technology in question at that particular firm. And he was basically told that because the new equipment would necessitate doing the process somewhat differently (and it is a difference of apple-to-apple), there wasn't any interest. The reason for this disinterest? Because the individual would have to convince other people in the organization at various and sundry levels that different is better and the OEM process technology expert figured that such lobbying would be far too difficult.

Which is—and I'm sorry that I may offend those of you who agree with that denier—pathetic. And although I don't know this to be a fact, I have heard on more than one occasion that the "auto industry is a conservative industry," meaning that it is reluctant to actually make substantive changes in the way it does work. Forget all of those people zooming around on- and off-road in those ads. It's steady as she goes, don't rock the ship.

There is a reluctance that we all have when it comes to making change. Inertia is a powerful force. But presumably we are all employed not because we are thought to be incredibly adept at maintaining the status quo, but because we can add value by making improvements. Companies can keep making the same thing in the same way. But people in marketing know that while that may be the lowest-cost approach, it is also the approach that is most certain to result in failure. So companies make new things, new models. But if the anecdotal evidence I have is true, many of these companies make them in the same old way.

Aren't manufacturing people as clever as marketing people? Isn't there a realization that there is probably another company out there taking an alternative approach: using different materials or different methods to produce things? If it works—and, yes, screwing up is a possibility—who will win?

Given the competitive nature of the auto industry, one would think that it would take a leadership position with regard to the implementation of new technology. Perhaps a great deal of the reticence that results in active resistance is predicated on the mass production model, the unquestioned belief that the only efficient way to make anything is in huge quantities. And so the same old methods are used, even tough new ones can change the economies of scale and make low volumes doable.

Those people and companies that are committed to trying new things, committed to finding better ways, committed to producing superior products will be the ones who win. The others, who avoid the conflicts that change invariably evokes, will be comfortable—until the advanced competitor hits them like a ton of bricks. And then they can look for an enduring status quo under the rubble.

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