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The Big Three Big-Top

With so many jobs in the balance and their fingers in so many pies I don't want any of the top three automakers, Chrysler, GM, or Ford, to fold up their tents.  One way or another I want them get their acts  together and turn themselves into viable businesses, contributing to  America's economic engine.

They have a huge impact on our country's future, which kind of feels  like a circus these days.  It's hard to see everything that is going on. There is action everywhere you turn. Someone is always shouting at you, saying, "Hey, look over here! You won't believe this!" And then there is that constant sense of danger, like the lion may actually bite that guy's head off in the center ring.

When I am asked to help a big organization with large-scale change, the first thing I ask is, 'Are they doing the needed work inside the organization to create long-term, sustainable results with their customers and partners?' It is not always easy to answer, but I do my best.  I try to look at the inner health of an organization to interpret the longer term prognosis.

With the Big Three, I am on the outside looking in, and it's hard to tell what's going on. So, I went snooping around, and bumped into Michelle Krebs, Senior Editor of Edmunds' She has been covering the auto industry for 30 years.  Here is a snippet of our conversation:

Me: "What's the outlook for Ford?"

Michelle: "Ford has never been great at sticking to their plan, but  they brought in Alan Mulally as CEO two and a half years ago, and that is his strong suit. That's what he did at Boeing with Working Together.  Now, he's running One Ford, and it looks to me like it's working. He has sold the superfluous parts of the business. The whole focus is on Ford as one company, all around the world.  You see, Ford has always been this global company, but operating on a regional basis. For years we complained, 'How come they build great cars in Europe, but we don't get them here?' Finally, he knocked down the walls. So, it's the same product and there is less duplication of effort. This helps in economies of scale and marketing."

Hmm, I think, that meshes with this book I saw recently, Ford Flexes Back,  written by Ford Project Manager, Kenneth Wentland. So, I called him up.  "Ken," I said, "What is Mulally doing now that hasn't been done in the past?"

Ken told me, "What he brings in is this idea of speed and making change  quickly.  Whether it was rapid fluctuations in the price of gasoline,  like the recent $2 -> $4 -> $2 per gallon, or the present economic  crisis, Ford was the first major auto company to announce counter measures.  This shows Ford's increase in speed-of-response, what I call maneuverability, to adjust its plan to external factors.  This has  increased my confidence that Ford is going to get through this."

Interesting. So, what is going on at Chrysler? To me, they seem very chaotic. Back to Michelle:

"Chrysler is a big mess. They are focused on cost, cost, cost. You have to build great product to get out of their situation. They used to be known for stylish, head-turning products like the Dodge Viper or the Prowler.  The Chrysler 300 was a huge breakthrough car, a family sedan with head-turning styling. They are off that.  They won't make it in their current form. Instead, there are going to be pieces. If it's going to be dismantled, there are valuable pieces."

Whew! And what about GM?

Michelle: "I think CEO Rick Wagoner has been demonized by the press. He has had a lot of work to undo from when Roger Smith was CEO. It's a slow process, slower than it should be. There is a cast of 1000s out there, lots of dead middle. But, GM will make it; they'll just be a very different company."

Me: "It does not appear GM has a coherent, targeted initiative they are pushing through the enterprise."

Michelle: "It may not look like it from the outside, but I have been covering this for three decades and I can see they have one. They were way ahead of Ford in getting started. For example, they went to a more global platform in terms of sharing vehicles earlier."

Ladeeees and gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up to the big show!  Lives hang in the balance! You will see miracles by ordinary men and women, daredevil feats performed without a net!  If you can stand the anxiety, grab some popcorn. Let's hope for the best.

- Seth Kahan,