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Nasser’s legacy: Vision tinged with vinegar

The new regime at Ford Motor Co. has parked many ills at the doorstep of former CEO Jacques Nasser. It’s a convenient gambit as William Clay Ford Jr. strives to move the company forward.

No one disputes that under Nasser Ford Motor lost its focus as a high-quality producer of appealing cars and trucks. Or that Nasser irritated employees, dealers, suppliers, organized labor and other stakeholders.

But Nasser’s intentions and motivations should not all be relegated to the junk heap.

Fostered diversity

First, Nasser recognized that the management of Ford Motor and other automakers is too white and too male; the industry doesn’t reflect the people buying its products.

Nasser tried to make a stodgy manufacturer a place where women and minorities would feel they had a chance to advance. Ford Motor’s culture balked when he implemented hiring and promotion quotas for women and minorities. His actions were viewed as too much, too soon.

Nasser also encouraged a sense of urgency, trying to overcome the inertia of a sprawling global corporation. In some cases he succeeded.

He moved quickly to acquire both Volvo Cars and Land Rover. And he hired highly regarded Wolfgang Reitzle to head the new luxury group. Unfortunately, Nasser did not simultaneously nurture the core Ford brand in North America.

Abrasive style

Nasser’s vision absorbed him, limiting his ability to see the corrosive affects of his hyperkinetic style.

For example, Ford Motor’s employee grading plan deflated morale. Designed to cultivate and attract high achievers, it mandated that 10 percent of those in a department receive the lowest grade, C. Two years of Cs and an employee was terminated. The aim of trimming dead weight is sound. But arbitrarily hacking off 10 percent of the branches enraged some workers and prompted lawsuits.

To his credit, Nasser also unwound much of Ford 2000.

Ford 2000, the brainchild of his predecessor, Alex Trotman, organized the company globally. It sounded good on paper, but engineers, designers and marketers lost touch with the distinctive tastes of each continent. It was like trying to run the company from 30,000 feet; you’ve got a great view, but you can’t see what’s happening on the ground.

Nasser recognized this and recreated regional organizations. Quality and manufacturing went awry at Ford partly because the organization seesawed between Ford 2000 and Nasser’s fixes. Reorganization followed reorganization as the company tried to balance global efficiencies and regional responsiveness. The result is a product development organization with a history of recalls at launch.

Nasser tried to think big and move fast, burning out in a short time in Detroit’s culture. Nasser lacked the ability to put in place the people, processes and organization to carry out his vision.

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