Ford’s problems need leadership, not a huddle

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(August 22, 2018) If you work at the Ford Motor Company, you get a copy of the weekly “CEO Note” in your e-mail inbox. Titled "The Huddle" it’s a memo outlining the latest thoughts from Jim Hackett. Numerous copies ended up in my inbox recently, sent by various and sundry folks in the Ford universe. To put it bluntly, the subject matter is a new generation of “bullshit bingo” that applies seemingly new buzzwords to old ideas.

Hackett’s latest subject matter — “clockspeed” — isn’t new. It’s a late 1990s term that describes a world that is getting faster, more complicated, and in which we’re all going to have to run to keep up.

It reminds me of a boss I used to have who would use the phrase, “Welcome to the Nineties!,” to explain the need to work twice as hard to produce more stories as the number of topics to cover were expanding. Of course, this conveniently ignored that we had the same number of pages to fill as when things weren’t so frenetic, our readers were depending on us, in these pre-Internet days, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and increasing our “clockspeed” would reduce our effective wage rate.

Better, those of us in the trenches thought, to work smarter, not harder. In other words, give the reader what he needs to know, what he wants to know, and what he should know in an interesting manner. In other words, continue doing the job as it was being done.

I will agree with Hackett that Ford is woefully slow. It has one of the oldest lineups in the industry, rarely innovates, and — when it does — it rushes into production before the bugs are worked out. Just ask Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s former global product chief. Pressure from his bosses to get the original Sync infotainment system into production eventually led to his enforced retirement. Ford over-promised and under-delivered, but Kuzak was the one who took the bullet.

One of the casualties of that decision was a move to modular platforms. Kuzak was familiar with DFC55 and T-drive, as well as the effect they had on Ford management. Yet he also knew the company had too many platforms, too many unique components and systems, and too many powertrains to build high quality cars profitably. With Ford having just rationalized its production process by finally standardizing build sequence and plant layouts around the world, Kuzak realized platform rationalization was the logical next step.

Focus and Fusion could share a platform, and eventually provide the base for every front-drive Ford. The same would be true of the rear-drive platform planned for the Mustang and Lincoln. Billions could have been saved, and more models — including low-volume specialty vehicles — profitably produced. Despite what critics might think, Alan Mulally’s One Ford concept was always about more than producing the same vehicles globally.

Modularity is finally coming to Ford, and it has nothing to do with clockspeed. It has to do with survival, and getting on the same page companies like VW and Toyota have been on for years. Had anyone in the upper ranks in Dearborn dared to “manage by walking around,” they might have discovered that the folks in the trenches had ideas for modular platforms, common component sets, and rationalized powertrains. They saw what the competition was doing, and felt they could do better. What they didn’t have was management support.

As this happens, Ford is chasing autonomous and electric vehicles, pushing hard to claim relevance in sectors driven by ego, mindless Wall Street analysts, and threatened environmental regulation. It pushes immature technologies to prove its relevance to Wall Street in the hopes of raising share price, clawing back a bit of the power it feels it has lost to Silicon Valley, and appealing to a generation that has been spoon-fed Marxist drivel about corporations, capitalism and the environment.

It believes that building self-driving electrified cars and trucks, and placing its development of these technologies in the old Michigan Avenue train station, will make Ford relevant again. An increase in share price, say supporters, is sure to follow. Really? Well, don’t spend your money just yet.

Ford’s stock price has dropped 40% in the past five years, and currently is trading below $10 per share. Investors are skeptical of Hackett’s plans, and don’t care about clockspeed. You’d think that a CEO who likes to use football terms like “The Huddle” would realize customers and investors are more interested in things like preparation, performance, execution, capability, heart, strength, authenticity, and courage; things that matter in competitive events.

They don’t want to hear about self-driving electric pods, especially at a time when other industry leaders are finally admitting that promises of a “hands-free/brains off” future are pure fantasy, less than full autonomy has the potential to greatly reduce accidents, and the battery electric future is not right around the corner. To think otherwise is truly shallow.

Ford’s biggest problem, other than being well behind the move to modular platforms, is that it no longer knows what it stands for, and how to relate to a changing world. Not only has Ford forgotten what it did best — build vehicles that meet customer needs and desires while providing that most precious commodity, freedom — there is no one in a position of power who has the courage to lead. Despite all the talk, Ford's huddle has no quarterback.

The Virtual Driver