Over the past few weeks we’ve taken Jim Womack to task for not being blunt enough with the situation in Detroit. This is because we have tremendous respect for him, and recognize that he is one of the few people in the lean community with the stature required to get the ear of top business and government officials. We want him to step up and be our leader, and forcefully confront the real issues.
Today he has an article at the top of the opinion section in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Toyota Won." Like the title, the article is fairly blunt and direct, and begins by thrashing MoTown’s thinking that "the secret must be a killer model to replace the big pickups and SUVs that floated the American firms for 15 years." As he puts it, "it’s not a new car model that’s needed. It’s a new business model… called lean enterprise." He goes on to describe five "fatal weaknesses" with GM and Ford:
- GM and Ford can’t design vehicles that Americans want to pay for. Womack goes into some detail on differences in engineering responsibility and philosophy that helps Toyota get a winning concept to the customer very quickly at low cost.
- GM and Ford are clueless (his words) as to how to work with their suppliers. Again contrasting MoTown with Toyota, he talks about how Toyota works with its suppliers to take out waste and put in quality while U.S. automakers try to crush the bones of their suppliers.
- GM and Ford have miasmic (his word, but I had to check the dictionary!) management cultures. Womack describes the value of the Toyota culture which creates great team players, while Ford and GM "turn competent people into Dilberts".
- GM and Ford cling to their wide range of brands. Toyota has three, BMW has two, but GM has seven and Ford has eight. And they still talk about "brand revitalization" as part of their turnaround strategy.
- GM and Ford still treat customers as strangers engaged in one-time transactions. Womack calls "customer touch" the "final weapon in the Toyota arsenal", which drives a far larger number of repeat customers.
He concludes the article by specifically not spending time on the usual excuses of pension obligations, cranky unions, and "creaky" factories… he calls that situation a basic failure of management. His last couple lines are worth repeating directly:
"There is no mystery about the lean business model. All of the elements are operating in this country every day at Toyota and at many other American companies in a range of industries. What is mysterious is why GM and Ford can’t embrace it. And what is dismaying is how many of their employees are likely to suffer if they don’t."
Mysterious indeed. That is the fundamental failure of GM and Ford management. And it’s good to finally see someone at least partially recognize the human cost of this failure. I’m sure he does not give enough specifics to satisfy my co-blogger Bill, and I would tend to agree, but it was a breath of fresh air to read this article… and realize that a million other business leaders are also reading it. I have very little confidence that it will change things in Detroit, but I hope that some others will sit up and take notice. Perhaps they’ll realize that this thing called lean could help save their own companies, and looking inward to reduce waste provides for far more opportunity than chasing lower labor costs to Mexico, then China, then Malaysia, then…
Thanks for stepping up, Jim. Now tell them exactly what needs to be done. Not that they’ll listen… but a lot of us will.