Ford 1979 Vs. Ford 2009: What's Changed?

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So exactly how did Ford achieve quality equal to Toyota? Or are their TV ads misleading, as the ads from decades ago which proclaimed “At Ford Quality Is Job One”? This was the question in my mind as I returned to the Sharonville Transmission Plant after exactly 30 years. A long term friend, who did not jump ship in 1979 as I had done, when it looked like Ford was going to self destruct, got me past the guard post for a tour of the plant. Jerry had seen what he called “a compete transformation of Ford Motor Company” during his 37 years. He said I would not recognize the place.

The physical appearance of the plant was a shocker. In 1979, dull florescent bulbs, covered with oily grime, dangled from a ceiling coated with years of build up of machine generated filth. You could see, but not very well. Now the plant is lighted by clean, high density lighting with reflective covers, spaced close enough to make the inside of the plant as bright as the outside on a sunny day.

There are no clouds of blue-gray machine mist, laced with millions of minute particles of suspended metal. The air is clean and odor free. Every machine is vented to protect the lungs of Ford workers. I smiled to myself as I recalled a short story from Hemmingway from my college days. It was called “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

But there was something missing. My shoes were not making a sucking sound with each step. That was because the wood block floors, saturated with rotting, stinking oil, are gone. They have been replaced with non slip concrete coated with a reflective epoxy finish, which adds to the brightness of the plant.

There was something else missing: Red Jackets and Coveralls. In 1979 Sharonville was a sea of Red Jackets and ill fitting, wrinkled Coveralls, which defined the side of the fence you were on – management or labor. The Red Jackets had “Ford” emblazoned on one breast pocket and “Supervisor” on the other. In the 70s I wore a Red Jacket.

As a Red Jacket my job was to “get my numbers” and make quota, no matter what. It was my job to bully, intimidate and “write up” men who failed to make quota. Ford would not accept any excuse for failing to “get my numbers” other than the Coveralls were not doing their jobs. Their theory of management, a holdover from the days of Henry Ford, was that workers were lazy and would not produce unless they were afraid of being fired.

The ill-fitting, wrinkled coveralls, issued by Ford, were worn by UAW workers. They came to work each day filled with stress and pent up rage, anticipating the hostile work environment created by management. If pushed too hard by the Red Jackets, the Coveralls would fight back in a thousand, mostly undetectable ways, which severely impacted productivity and quality. If a Red Jacket tried to work with his people he would be viewed as a defector from the management camp, and his days at Ford would be numbered.

But the battlefield conditions at Ford have disappeared. The work environment is relaxed, with no outward sign of tension between management and labor. In fact, management and the UAW are now partners on 76 work teams, with 76 “Team Leaders” which are UAW members. The old Red Jackets have been replaced with “Manufacturing Advisors” whose function is to make sure their teams have everything they need to do their jobs. You cannot distinguish management from labor, and there is neither a necktie nor a wrinkled, ill fitting pair of coveralls to be seen.

Jerry introduced me to the Bargaining Chairman of the UAW. He explained that the old days are gone, and that the competitive global economy necessitates close cooperation between management and labor. There are certainly differences, but they are settled at the bargaining table rather than in plant wide wars.

I shook my head in disbelief. Thirty years ago I concluded that Ford was headed for bankruptcy. I asked Jerry what accounted for this phenomenal change. He gave me a one word answer: Fear.

Everyone saw the handwriting on the wall. At one time Ford had three plants in Cincinnati, GM had two, and a few miles up I-75 Chrysler had a plant. Sharonville now has fewer than one third as many employees as it had in 1979, and all the other auto plants are vacant buildings, with thousands unemployed. Toyota, Honda, and other foreign auto companies now virtually dominate our auto market. Everyone knew that it was change or die.

So how did they do it? They got rid of the hardcore, old school managers and UAW people through retirements and buyouts. A younger, better educated, more reasonable group of people moved to positions of responsibility in the union and at Ford. A woman is now President of UAW Local 863. That would have been unheard of in 1979.

But I wanted to know about quality. It was poor quality that nearly destroyed Ford Motor Company in the 80s when it was hit with the largest recall in automotive history because of defective transmissions. Jerry said “I am glad you asked about quality” as he led me into the midst of the modern, high tech machines that replaced the noisy, smoky old clunkers from the 70s.

A UAW team leader explained why transmissions from Sharonville today are second to none. It was not his explanation that impressed me. It was his sense of pride, commitment, and ownership. I watched his work team, and it was unrecognizable from my experience in the 70s. If the parts did not meet quality specifications, someone would hit the “stop” button, and the line would not start up again until the problem was solved. In the 70s if a worker hit the “stop” button and it was not break or lunch, he would be written up.

Work Teams have a “no fault forward” philosophy where parts are checked continuously so they cannot cause problems for other operations further down the production line. Fifty TV cameras constantly monitor quality. There is a “Transmission Birth History” which details every phase of manufacture on each individual transmission. It is a 50 page document. Work Team members rotate jobs, so that every team member is trained on every operation. Maintenance is integrated into each work team.

This is so different from the 70s that it would have to be called revolutionary. UAW jobs were narrowly defined. A man did his job, and his job only. If his job was down for any reason he sat and waited for it to be back up. It was common for men to sleep in bathroom stalls when their jobs were not running. To assign them other work could ignite a war that could last for a week.

Maintenance in the 70s revolved around “Maintenance Outposts.” There was an outpost in each zone. Every department in the zone was dependent on the outpost for electricians, pipe fitters, etc. If an outpost had two electricians, but three departments were down needing electrical repair, one department would stay down until repairs were completed in the other down department, and the crew would read magazines, sleep in the men’s room, or play cards.

If a down department needed a pipe fitter, and he found that there was also an electrical problem, he had to go back to the outpost to request the next available electrician, even if he could fix it. He was a pipe fitter, and pipe fitters do not fix electrical problems. It was a terribly inefficient system.

When I thanked Jerry for the tour he mentioned that very few of the people who now work at the Sharonville Transmission Plant have any idea how bad it was in the 70s, and therefore do not realize how good they have it today. This is a new generation of auto workers who have cut the shackles of the past, and they are producing quality that is second to none.

[Robert Dewar is a former Ford Motor Company general foreman and author of A Savage Factory: An Eyewitness Account of the Auto Industry’s Self-Destruction. He currently lives in Cincinnati, OH and runs a successful packaging business with his wife and family. For more information, visit www.asavagefactory.com.]

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  • Russycle Russycle on Oct 09, 2009

    dolorean23, I was going to mock you for your defense of the Fox platform, but you make a good point. Compared to the utter crap Ford was producing in the 70s, the Fox was a small miracle. And credit to Ford for making the most of it.

  • Bigbadbill Bigbadbill on Oct 10, 2009

    A great article on the Ford Sharonville Plant. After making some really AWFUL cars in the late 70's and early 80's they seem to be finally getting their act together under Alan Mullaly. I truly hope they succeed. It appears that a lot of people (read the comments) would just LOVE to see the domestic auto industry fail. The bitterness is acrid and of no help to anyone. Do these people who do buy foreign cars (or transplants) realize the final "profits" return to the country of origin and cause great problems in our balance of trade? Let's look at South Korea. I understand they are making cars now (I'm being facetious). But Korea doesn't play by the "rules" and only allows a very limited number of "foreign" (read American)autos into the country. No such rules exist for exports to the USA however. They can "dump" hundred of thousands of their products into the States and nobody seems to care. Last year the Korean auto workers went on strike when they heard that the Korean Government was going to allow American beef products into the country. (I think there was some sort of compromise, but I'm sure we got screwed) And so it goes.... I could start ranting about Japan and their restrictive trade practices too...but (I hope) you get the idea.

  • Tassos Ford models are like dumb Hollywood movies. The original is far better than their god damned sequels. This was true of the Mustang vs the II, AND the Capri vs its second gen, and their BEV PORKER atrocities many decades later
  • Jeff I would not buy a Chinese car with the current global situation with Taiwan and Ukraine but I believe eventually China will become the number 1 producer of vehicles globally. Lou brought up a valid point that much of the content of new vehicles has components made in China. Even many of the tires that are sold are made in China. Try buying a small appliance or electronics that are not made in China. Many of the electric motors that go in power reclining furniture are made in China. Many auto parts especially replacement parts are made in China.
  • 2ACL Not as bad as some have quipped, but half the appeal of a sport compact is the car on which it's based. The Ion was one of the worst in segment, blunting the outreach of GMPD's work. More marginalization hit in the form of competitors evolving into some of their most compelling interations. $8.5k? KBB tells Joe Average to aim for half that. Within the context of those specifically interested in this model, the magic words for asking more than market seem to be 'Competition Package.' If the best the seller can do in a short ad is vaguely reference aftermarket audio, they don't deserve a premium.
  • The Oracle I can’t wait to see the UAW attempt to organize the Chinese plants when they come.
  • Redapple2 They strove to excel and improve in this era ( on the cheap? ). They gave us Saturnasty and Northstarubish and the F150 grew in dependability and features over the Silveradoffal. -gm- a legacy of utter garbage.
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