Industry Week Article Overstates Progress at the Big Three

Industry Week’s current issue is featuring a story about the progress GM, Ford and Chrysler are making in becoming lean. The sub-headline on the article is “Continuous improvement has taken hold in Detroit -- and not a moment too soon.”

But has it? I question the article’s conclusion because I believe it misses a major point.

The article, by Josh Cable, notes how quality and productivity have improved at the Big Three, basing that conclusion partly on figures from the most recent Harbour Report, which measures productivity. I’ve quoted the Harbour Report myself.

Additional information in the article notes the increased emphasis the Detroit automakers are putting on having flexible operations that can adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace.

All of this is true, and yes, progress has been made. But there is a word missing from the article that goes to the heart of a lean transformation.


Applying lean techniques to make your processes more efficient and flexible is all well and good. It does produce benefits.

But to become a truly lean organization, you need to transform your culture. You need to become an organization where everyone, from the corner office to the shop floor, thinks in lean terms, never viewing the job as done, always striving for perfection, and endlessly pursuing continuous improvement.

Do the Detroit car companies think that way? Perhaps some people in those organizations do. But I am not convinced that any of the Big Three has achieved the kind of enterprise-wide cultural transformation that would put them in the same league as Toyota.

I hope they make progress in that regard. But I’m not holding my breath.


Tim McMahon said...

You nailed this one. I agree. Too early to call anything they have done a truly transformational. I have more faith in Ford at this point. I think people understand flexibility is an advantage. Doesn't it go back to the voice of the customer. Understand your customers requirements and also their expectations. Part of the free market system is filtering out those that handle changes better than their competition.

Mark Welch said...

I believe in line 18 you meant to say "perfection" instead of "perception." Would that be right?

Overall, nicely put. How often do organizations cherry-pick a few lean tools and/or concepts and think they've arrived? Too often.

Ralph Bernstein said...

That's correct. I did mean perfection. I fixed it. Thanks.

Adam Zak said...

I have a collection of very similar articles and conference presentations dating back, oh, seven or eight years or more, in which Detroit Three executives excitedly describe the leadership roles their companies are taking in the drive to transform themselves into Lean organizations. We know how well that worked. What's different THIS time? Adam Zak