When Honda Motor Co. began building motorcycles in Marysville, Ohio, in September 1979, it marked the start of something historic. Momentous. Revolutionary.
For every observer applauding Honda's arrival (or booing, in some cases), there were three auto industry veterans scratching their heads, trying to make sense of Honda's oddball ways.
When the Japanese upstart began building cars in Marysville, Honda's strange methods attracted even more industry attention. After all, the plant was only the second U.S. car factory, after Volkswagen AG's, that wasn't owned by one of the Big 3. That alone would have made it a curiosity, even if Honda had come to the United States doing things the same way as the American automakers.
But Honda didn't. Its standard operating procedures were strange operating procedures in the country where Henry Ford perfected mass production, and where senior managers enjoyed perks that set them apart from the masses.
Honda seemed to thumb its nose at the Big 3's hierarchical culture. Everyone at its Marysville factory from the plant manager down to the maintenance crew wore white uniforms with nametags sewn above their chest pockets. Everyone was called an associate. Everyone vied for parking spaces in the morning because there were no spots reserved for the top brass.
Honda made it clear that it never intended to lay off employees.
The company preferred to hire farmers with no factory experience rather than auto plant veterans.
Everyone started the day with calisthenics.
Honda showed off its Elisnor 250 motorcycle at a 1979 open house at the Marysville plant.
As a pioneer, Honda brought not only ways but words. The "English First" lobby never knew what hit them.
In a matter of years, Honda and its followers introduced the American industry to an entire lexicon. The words were odd, and the concepts even odder to the industry's way of thinking. Consider the following:
Most notably, the andon board would light up when a worker ran into a problem and pulled the andon cord at his work station, stopping the production line.
The idea that line workers could stop the line sent Detroit managers into apoplexy. Ohio was the home of General Motors' notorious Lords-town plant. Workers there, many of them disillusioned Vietnam veterans, had sabotaged cars when GM tried to speed up the line. And now Honda was going to allow its workers, or rather "associates," to stop the line when they pleased? What kind of nutty thinking was that?
As Honda explained it, everyone makes an occasional mistake. Applying poka-yoke concepts was a way to reduce the number of mistakes that resulted from people's minds wandering. For example, if you redesign the headlight sockets so that the right-side lamp wouldn't fit in the left-side socket, the chance of misaligned headlights is eliminated.
Instead of sending in industrial engineers to reconfigure the line and tell workers what to do, Honda asked the workers for ideas. This wasn't the traditional, oft-neglected suggestion box, either. Honda aggressively used quality circles, small groups of self-led workers, to continually fine-tune every aspect of operations. Every month or two, top management sat eagerly through hours of presentations by the groups.
Instead of commanding how all facets of the assembly process would work, Honda did the unthinkable: It asked workers for ideas. PHOTO: JOE WILSSENS
To an industry where the battle lines between workers and managers had calcified decades ago, Honda seemed anarchic.
Honda, of course, had no interest in fighting those battles. It made no attempt to hide its aversion to American unions - the UAW in particular. It didn't need a union, it didn't want a union, and it didn't care what UAW leaders thought.
Although unusual among automakers in America at the time, this was not particularly strange. Parts suppliers had begun migrating to southern states with "Right to Work" laws that impeded union organizers' efforts.
There was a less-appealing side to Honda's personnel policies. In 1988, Honda paid $6 million to settle a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the Japanese carmaker with discriminating against 370 black people and women in hiring and promotions. Honda also settled an age-discrimination case in 1987.
To many critics, the idea of making auto plant employees wear uniforms smacked of Big Brother. But the idea won acceptance. PHOTO: JOE WILSSENS
Nobody else built motorcycles as a first step to entering the United States. No other Japanese auto company built many of its own machine tools, the way Honda R&D Co. did for the Marysvilleplant.
Finally, as more Japanese car factories sprouted on U.S. soil, would-be suppliers learned that Honda's purchasing requirements were quite different from Nissan Motor Co.'s, which in turn were distinct from Toyota Motor Corp.'s.
Slowly, Honda came to been seen not as weird, just unique, in much the same way that Chrysler Corp. was unique from Ford Motor Co. or General Motors.
Over time, the American industry adopted many of Honda's ways because, quite simply, they worked. Across the land, regardless of whose name was on the factory building, assembly plants sprouted andon boards, practiced poka-yoke and pursued kaizen.
Weird went away, but the Honda Way stayed.