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Old 03-27-2006, 11:02   #1 (permalink)
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Japan:Fields must fit Mazda lessons to Ford

COMMENT:Fields must fit Mazda lessons to Ford

A winner in Japan, exec should get out his old playbook

James B. Treece | Automotive News
James B. Treece is Asia editor of Automotive News.


TOKYO -- You might as well start calling that Dearborn, Mich., carmaker Forzda.

Mark Fields heads the attempt to revive Ford Motor Co. in North America. The former Mazda Motor Corp. CEO is going to draw heavily on the lessons that he and other Ford executives learned from their half-decade experience in turning around the once-struggling Japanese carmaker.

Fields could tap lots of lessons. But here are three possibilities, based on my years of following the Mazda recovery.

1. Do ask; don't tell
Not everyone at Ford understands how critical the situation is, and you can't just tell them. They must figure it out for themselves.

At Mazda, Fields began an employee-education course. It started with the white-collar crowd but eventually involved everyone. They learned about the impact of exchange rates, capacity utilization and so on. It was Business 101.

At the end of each class, Fields addressed the assembly. "OK, we export 70 percent of our cars. We get whipsawed by exchange rates. We make a ton of money when the yen rate is right and lose a ton when it's wrong. What should we do?"

After thinking it over, the attendees reached the only rational conclusion. Mazda should make more cars overseas to hedge its currency bets.

So when Fields announced he was going to start building cars at a Ford plant in Spain and, by the way, close a plant in Hiroshima, Japan, everyone understood it was the right thing to do. Even the folks at the Hiroshima plant that was to be closed understood the need.

If you were Fields, would you do that with the UAW locals?


2. Define the brand
Fields insisted that Mazda's product planners and the whole company know what the Mazda brand stood for.

Only after they had identified that could they decide what kind of suspension, interior features and so on were right for Mazda's entry in each market segment. Otherwise, me-too Mazdas would keep losing to Toyotas.

Getting there wasn't easy. Fields froze the product-development program for a revenue-sapping 18 months. Nothing new entered showrooms in that time. Dealers survived -- barely -- on special editions of existing models. The pain was intense.

The pain was worthwhile. Today, Mazda's lineup is acclaimed for being true to the "zoom-zoom" identity.

Ford needs the same treatment. What does Ford stand for? Lincoln? Mercury?

With sales slumping, Fields and Bill Ford will need guts to stop new-car launches until the company sorts out those brand identities.

If ever there was a time when family ownership should translate into the fortitude to take short-term pain for long-term gain, this is it.


3. Put people to work
Mazda's rotary-engine plant is a case study in the new dynamics of labor costs.

In some areas, the engines are almost hand-built by some of Mazda's most senior factory workers. Mazda praises them, rightly, for their experience and deep engine know-how.

A cynic might point out that those guys, while not exactly geezers, are hardly young enough to zip from job to job on a fast-moving final-assembly line. But they're doing real work.

In the Jobs Bank era, labor is no longer a variable cost but a fixed cost like stamping machines. That is something the Japanese carmakers have understood for years because of their implied lifetime-employment system. But the Big 3 still don't get it.

Instead of moaning about paying people not to work, management must find work for them. Finding work for them is management's responsibility and is as high a priority as pushing factory utilization rates to profitable levels.

Here's an idea. Cull the work force for the most skilled workers, set them up in a low-investment factory and have them hand-build or customize limited-edition cars. Replace them on the line with folks who have been playing cards at the Jobs Bank.

UAW members want the dignity of real work. Ford wants a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Dealers want special one-of-a-kind vehicles that excite customers while waiting for the company to come up with images for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury that will resonate with buyers.

Who loses?

The competition, if Forzda does it right.
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