Creating a Future at Ford St. Paul

I had a great visit to the Ford Ranger plant in St. Paul last week. It’s a 2.1 million square foot facility with about 800 employees, situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. The facility is slated for extinction in the next couple of years, but the team keeps fighting for its future, improving their operation every year. The plant is now the second most efficient in the US, trailing only the Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

Two things were very clear during the visit: Seamless cooperation between labor and management, and singular focus on the task at hand. These two qualities came through in everything we saw.

The cooperation started at the front door. It seemed like I walked into the middle of an employee seminar being held along with our tour. Instead, I quickly discovered that two-thirds of our tour guides were hourly, union employees. We met for a safety orientation before the official tour and both sides went out of their way to speak well of their opposite numbers. Everyone made the visitors feel welcome and went out of their way to show off their operation.

Modern manufacturing operations can be incredibly complicated systems – especially in a facility of that size – and require laser focus to maintain and improve. The team broke down the complication into thousands of simple pieces, continually coordinated to come together efficiently. One of the examples was the process marrying tires to trucks. Tires were put on rims and sent to the production line from a cell located over 100 yards from the assembly point. They were loaded into the delivery system and traveled in a “tire roller coaster” over the line, dropping into the assembly station. Each set arrived in the proper order at the point of attack. Simple operations, coordinated to make assembly easy and efficient.

The team continues to fight for its survival, even in the face of long odds. The walls are filled with updates and statistics, designed to find new improvement opportunities and track progress. Union and management leaders work together to continuously promote the plant and its product.

Why can’t the rest of us work this way? Do we need a crisis to break out of ineffective routines? It’s critical for all of us to be looking for opportunities. The economy will not be helping us in the coming year. We can muddle through the next twelve months or we can find ways to help ourselves.

It’s time to find ways to create value. Seize opportunities where your competitors are “hunkered down.” Create new alliances that open new markets and provide new capabilities. Make the moves to grow your business during these unique times and come out of this recession in position to dominate your competition.

…or will you wait for a crisis?




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