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Stretching

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm —Emerson

Few things nowadays are as risky as writing about a company’s stated strategy. It’s not because things are happening more quickly (the now proverbial “Internet time”), but because there is an increased level of uncertainty in the market environment, one that’s perhaps analogous to what El Nino has done to semi-predictable weather patterns. Who would have imagined the AOL-TimeWarner combination? GM’s announcements that it is linking with AOL and with ISP NetZero and Ford’s announcement of associating its brands with Yahoo! would have been more remarkable had the media play not unfolded at approximately the same time.

That said, let me point out that at the time this is being written, Honda Motor Co. is an independent company, and that its president and CEO, Hiroyuki Yoshino stated on January 12 at the North American International Auto Show, “We will remain independent.”

There were certainly some raised eyebrows in December, 1999, when GM and Honda announced there was an engine cross-supply agreement, with the former getting Honda’s IC engines and Honda getting diesels in return.

Yoshino, who had been assigned to the U.S. back in 1969, serving as Honda’s first R&D engineer in America (note that this was before Honda was selling cars in the U.S. market), had an amusing way of describing how the two companies got together to discuss the deal: “We first met with GM about nine months ago. At the time, we had an office in the Renaissance Center—now GM headquarters. So, at first, I thought they might be giving us an eviction notice.” Funny how things work out. (Honda’s Detroit office did move, by the way.)

I don’t know whether Yoshino (or his speech writer) is familiar with 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson or not. But Yoshino’s descriptive term for Honda’s strategy for the 21st century rings of an essay Emerson published in 1841. Yoshino spoke of “self-innovation.” Emerson’s subject was “self-reliance.”

In speaking of the self-innovation strategy as it relates to engines, Yoshino said, “This approach is based on Honda’s willingness to seek out new challenges—beyond what regulations require us to do.” When Yoshino first came to the U.S., his job required him to deal with the 1970 Clean Air Act. He knows about the government’s stick. He undoubtedly knows that using a stick isn’t the best way to get the best out of people. Yoshino continued, “But it also implies the need to pursue new dreams—setting our engineers free to develop new ideas.”

Yoshino talked about advanced technology. But unlike the chairmen of other auto companies, he emphasized powertrain technology—fuel cells, and the like—not an Internet strategy. What those other people may be losing sight of is the fact that few consumers are going to buy lousy cars no matter how dazzling a home page might be.

What is more remarkable is the fact that Yoshino talked of “new dreams” of engineers being set “free to develop new ideas.” That sort of vision isn’t typical of Detroit.

Emerson wrote, “But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

Presumably, the “work” of automobile companies is to build vehicles. But maybe that’s now passe. Perhaps it‘s becoming more about portals than Pontiacs, hot links than Lincolns. Still, I know that when it comes to getting a new car, I’ll be more interested in knowing that it is well engineered and built than in knowing that people in Detroit are spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley.

But the discussion of “self-innovation” and the rereading of Emerson that it inspired makes me realize that at an individual level each of us should work to excel and to go beyond the norm, to become distinctive in the way that Honda is working to become at a corporate level. As Emerson wrote:

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.
Perhaps Honda will be acquired. Maybe it has already happened. But I’m certain that if it occurs, the people there, those who truly follow the path of self-innovation, will have portable assets with values that far exceed anything that could be found on a resume. And if it doesn’t occur, that there will be plenty of other companies (and consumers) interested in Honda’s powertrains than what is ostensibly the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.

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