By Kevin Meyer
Take a step back in time, just a few months before the bailout and cash for clunkers distorted the market by stimulating the demand for foreign autos, and imagine you’re an auto manufacturer facing some tough times, a tough economy, and an uncertain future. What do you do? If you’re a traditional kind of company you whack some heads, shed some knowledge, batten down the hatches, and cut spending to the bone. You then hide in the corner and hope for a bailout to save the day. Preferably a bailout that didn’t skew demand to your competitors.
Honda faced that same dilemma.
Late last year, as the global economic downturn forced people to put major purchases on hold, Honda faced a difficult decision. What do you do when you're facing a slowdown in the economy but don't want to lose a loyal and highly-skilled workforce – in this case, the dedicated Honda associates who build the Civic and CR-V at our plant in Swindon. After looking at all the options, the decision was taken to temporarily close the plant – but being Honda, this would be no ordinary shut down.
Yes they took a slightly different approach.
Firstly, there would be no mandatory redundancies – and workers would continue to be paid. Secondly, Honda's associates would get the chance to have their say and get involved. Finally, instead of just locking the gates, the factory would get a complete top-to-toe makeover – making it cleaner, greener and more efficient.
What did that involve?
Rallying under the slogan 'change is chance', the associates who work in the plant pitched in to make it a better place to work. Way up in the rafters, old ventilation ducts were removed to let more natural daylight in. The bathrooms were re-tiled and plumbed in by our own very handy Honda associates, while members of the management and admin teams redecorated the common areas.
The key philosophical difference is leveraging the power of people… not minimizing the supposed “cost” of people. This concept extends even further.
It wasn't just the plant enjoying a renaissance. While some associates took part in training and skills development, others went out into the community and volunteered their time to help with local gardening and school initiatives. In all, the break gave Honda's manufacturing a chance to take a step back, reassess, and make things even better. With a shiny, 'almost new' plant to return to – and a new model on the way – the future looks bright.
No doubt. When demand begins flowing again, companies that invested during the downturn – invested in people as well as infrastructure – will reap the rewards.