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Time for Discussion

The word is that Ford CFO Alan Gilmour is chairing a group asking one simple question: “If we were building a car company today how would we ?” The blank is then filled with anything, from human resources to assembly, or from design to delivery.

The word is that Ford CFO Alan Gilmour is chairing a group asking one simple question: “If we were building a car company today how would we ?” The blank is then filled with anything, from human resources to assembly, or from design to delivery. Everything is up for discussion.

Discussion. Now there’s a loaded word. I remember “discussions” with my parents after having done something wrong, with teachers when my performance wasn’t up to expectations. All were monologues, not dialogues. There are many people, at every automaker and supplier on the planet, who have been taken to the woodshed for a “discussion” about coloring outside of the accepted lines. Some were crooks, but most were trying to improve the situation.

What’s often forgotten in “reengineering” exercises like Ford’s is that a company’s image is determined by what it was, not by what management thinks it should be. When you get down to it, one company isn’t that different from its competitors. A market is studied, a product is designed to meet that customer’s needs, and it is built and sold. However, these processes are determined by institutional biases built up over time. Despite numerous changes and reorganizations, the base on which later structures are built hasn’t changed.

Myth plays a role, as well. That is, the personality of the founding father, the genius of those who struggled to right the ship at various points along the way, all combined with what the corporation truly values. By this I mean the difference between conformity and uniformity of purpose. One demands that nothing changes, the other that everyone keeps the corporate goal in mind. Myth and conformity can create a situation in which past leaders, though long since dead, still affect how a company reacts. “Uniformity of purpose” means a company moves from success to success because the goal is more important than the process. Or the people.

To move from conformity to uniformity of purpose takes more than white papers or a near-death experience. The first is a mandate that addresses the symptoms, not the disease. The second is a “bargain with God” to spare your sorry soul on the promise of better behavior in the future. Once the crisis passes, each is forgotten. So how do you bring about real change?

First, quit blaming others for your failings. How often are programs delayed, or costs exceeded because no one used common sense? Or management set parameters they thought said one thing, but those receiving them heard another? Neither situation is helped by endless “discussions” that seek only to lay blame, not solve the problem. Put the egos away. Start from first principles. Solve the problem.

Next, realize that your company didn’t spring up this morning. It has a history, a way of viewing the world, and a way of doing things. Study them. Understand them. Then use them to tear down the myths that hold you back, and instill new ones that support a clear, sustainable set of goals that extend beyond “making money.”

Third, forget about reconciling business and personal ethics. Ethics doesn’t come in pairs. The best companies already have learned playing fair doesn’t mean not playing hard. Or that some of the best people for a position don’t meet the stated requirements, and think on their own. At least, that’s what I think. Now it’s time for you to discuss.

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