The Irony and Sadness of Ford and Boeing

I find several kinds of irony in the fact that, of the Big Three American automakers, Ford is the only one that looks like it may survive the current economic crisis without a huge government bailout.

(And before anyone launches an argument with me, yes, Ford is seeking some of the $25 billion the government is providing for technology improvements, which does smell somewhat like a bailout. But unlike GM and Chrysler, Ford is not telling the government it also needs additional funds simply to survive. Ford did ask for a line of credit, which comes close to a bailout. However, GM and Chrysler are a lot closer.)

Lean manufacturing is almost synonymous with the Toyota Production System. But Toyota did not originate all of the principles that make up lean. Some of them go back to the original master of mass production, Henry Ford. (Read Henry Ford’s Lean Vision: Enduring Principles from the First Ford Motor Plant by William A. Levinson.)

Ford lost its way and for many years engaged in the same kind of non-lean manufacturing as GM and Chrysler. And like those two companies, Ford lost market share and fell on tough times.

Ford’s efforts to solve its problems have achieved more than those of the other Detroit automakers. And those efforts have come under the leadership of Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing – a company known for embracing a lean strategy. I see that as ironic, though it may be just a vindication of lean principles.

However, there is certainly irony in the fact that Mullaly is helping turn Ford around at a time when Boeing is facing problems. And other than the world economic crisis, Boeing’s biggest problem is construction of the delay-plagued 787 Dreamliner – which was conceived when Mulally was CEO.

I don’t know whether Mulally was involved in the decision to outsource a great deal of the design and construction of key components for the Dreamliner. That decision is the source of many of the current problems, largely through poor communication with, and oversight of, suppliers. One would think he had to have given at least some support to that strategy.

Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, sometimes we don’t. It appears that the lean education of the U.S. automotive and aerospace industries is, at best, incomplete.


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