Minutes versus months: Kudos to Honda

Minutes versus months: Kudos to Honda, by Mark Chussil

The Wall Street Journal wrote on September 23, 2008, about Honda’s flexible production facilities. It can take GM or Ford weeks or months, and many millions of dollars, to modify a plant to build a different model. It can take Honda’s plant in East Liberty, Ohio, as little as five minutes to switch from building Civic compacts to CR-V crossovers.

There are many advantages to that flexibility, and the article describes some of them. As a “what if your strategy” exercise for the reader, see how many you can imagine. (For practice, think about bathtubs.) Notice that not all of the benefits are about production. There are as many benefits for business strategy.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I listened to Avalon Professor of the History of Science Derek de Solla Price (1922-1983) talk about knowledge. As I remember through the fog of decades, he said that the best insights to be gotten from science would come from looking across fields (silos, if you will). It occurs to me that that’s what Honda has done, intentionally or not. Mass-production factories are hard-wired, which is nirvana for economies of scale and anathema for adaptability. Flexible factories are a stretch for a person who thinks in terms of mass production, and they are a perfectly natural concept to a computer scientist, for whom hard-wiring is awful. Instead of Microsoft Word, can you imagine Microsoft Poet, a processor for words that rhyme, and Microsoft Prose, a processor for words that don’t?

Kudos to Honda, to others who use flexible factories, and to those who design flexible factories.

An honorable mention to Chrysler. On September 24, the Journal wrote that Chrysler is moving its electric cars to market quickly “by relying on outside suppliers for many … key components. That is a big change from the auto industry’s traditional approach.”

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