Ultimate road test

November 20, 1998

The aim of this valuable and interesting book is simple and straightforward - to trace the production of a car, the Ford Taurus, from the planning and design phase, through engineering, manufacturing and sales, into the dealers' showrooms and to the customer. It is "the story of the people who make and market the cars, touching on as many lives as possible".

Ford did all the right things, or so it seemed, to develop a car of the correct quality, on time and within budget. Its "World Class Timing" product-development schedule was instrumental in creating teams and introducing simultaneous development systems under a strong team leader in an attempt to duplicate Japanese efficiency. But, in the event "battles raged all over the car". As a result the "first prototypes were good, but not as good as predicted". Despite the use of benchmarking and the goal of beating the Japanese, or Chrysler or any other rival, Ford, like many large corporations, suffered many disruptive internal rivalries. The goal of "design for manufacture", where designers and engineers work together to produce a car that can be made easily and, therefore, profitably in the Japanese way, was not attained.

Another trend is to increase out-sourcing. Firms such as Ford are moving out of areas of manufacture as well as reducing the number of suppliers. This is supposed to improve efficiency by increasing production runs and concentrating activities in the hands of those that know best. But if the single supplier is not as efficient as hoped, or is prepared to exploit its monopoly, then the system does not deliver. In addition, suppliers who were arch rivals are expected to work together.

The Taurus programme was bedevilled by such difficulties. But the advent of partnership and trust that is supposed to be the key to success in the modern motor industry cannot be developed overnight. In fact, the motto of the man in charge of the Taurus launch, Dick Landgraff - the "Maximum leader" - was "Trust no one, verify everything". This was a result of experience, but it did not create the mindset for the new approach, which depended on trust. Mary Walton's book is an excellent antedote to all those texts that give the impression that having recognised corporate weaknesses it is a straightforward matter to eliminate them.

Although many people are mentioned, it is not the author's intention to single them out, but to show how they and many like them elsewhere in industry have to contend not only with rivals in other firms but also internally.

These people achieved a great deal. Although initially they failed in this "epic thrust" against the Japanese to produce a car that fully satisfied the customer and made acceptable profits, it was brought in on time and within budget, and with enhanced qualities. New work policies have been introduced and the Ford 2000 policy overhauls all systems. In addition, other Ford products like the E-series pick-up truck and Explorer sports utility are successful. Ford has much to be proud about and its reported regret at opening its soul to Walton seems misplaced over an expose of unsurprising defects.

The weakness of the book is that it says little in conclusion. Is goal-setting realistic or useful? Can a major corporate reorganisation work? This book poses many questions but fails to provide satisfactory answers.

D. G. Rhys is director, Centre for Automotive Industry Research, Business School, University of Wales, Cardiff.

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace

Author - Mary Walton
ISBN - 0 393 04080 1
Publisher - Norton
Price - £19.95
Pages - 360

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