For 25 years, the auto industry has cherry-picked ideas from Honda's North American operations. Some competitors have pursued bigger versions of the ideas. Some have applied Honda's notions far beyond the Japanese automaker's own use. Others have tried Honda ideas and rejected them.
Honda didn't reinvent automaking. It may have borrowed some of its practices from Japanese competitors before it set up shop in Marysville, Ohio, in 1979. But Honda was the first in a wave of automakers that brought new ways of building cars to these shores.
Here are 10 innovations that Honda developed at its North American manufacturing facilities.
1 Rapid die changes. High-volume manufacturers once had the luxury of taking hours to change dies on a stamping press to begin producing new pieces. Executives of Honda's U.S. Marysville plant saw such slow-motion changeovers as a waste of resources. Instead of having several workers take hours to change dies, Honda developed processes that enabled only one or two people to do the job in minutes.
Automated presses and Honda's investment in a new greenfield plant helped make this improvement possible. But it also reflected a new attitude about how much production downtime was acceptable.
2 Model changeovers on the fly. The first Accord for the 1986 model year rolled down the Marysville assembly line in September 1985 - just behind the last 1985-model Accord. Two generations of cars. One production line. The same work shift. No break in the action.
Honda's ability to retool assembly lines without shutting them down for weeks or even months triggered two decades of industry trauma. Automakers continue to struggle to run flexible factories that permit cheaper and faster model changeovers.
Yet Honda had a point. The light calisthenics warmed up muscles, increased limberness and dexterity, and reduced workplace injury and muscle strain. They also helped make sluggish workers a little perkier, improving product quality. Honda associates ultimately dropped the routine. But how many employers now preach fitness, exercise, ergonomics awareness and YMCA corporate membership?
4 Nonunion automaking. UAW representation used to be a given among auto assembly workers. But UAW organizers failed to make headway at Honda's Marysville plant. Its workers, whom the automaker called "associates," already had everything the union promised, including acceptable wages and a process for redressing grievances.
The UAW ended its organizing campaign at Honda in March 1986 and never recovered. Today there are 13 nonunion engine and auto assembly plants in the United States.
5 Uniforms. They were baggy and a utilitarian white, like a house painter's cheap coveralls. But Honda's standard-issue uniforms spoke volumes about changing workplace attitudes. At first critics argued that they dehumanized the employees who wore them. They concealed a worker's personality, hiding a colorful T-shirt, tattoo or Grateful Dead belt buckle.
But the associates wanted them. The uniforms equalized employees. They bolstered the philosophy that inside the plant, you were Honda first, nametag second, job title last. And they kept dirt and grease off your clothes.
6 Supplier relations. U.S. suppliers fumed in the 1980s when Honda purchasing managers dared to ask them for financial documents, inspect their factories and dictate parts prices. Such demands challenged the traditional relationship between supplier and customer. But over time, companies that submitted to the automaker's practices got the point: Honda wasn't looking for bargains; it was looking for partners.
Perusing profit and loss statements enabled Honda to determine whether a supplier was pricing its products too low. Setting target prices forced U.S. suppliers to review their operations and uncover inefficiencies that needed correction. Such things created a better long-term partnership.
7 Factory lawyers. The folk wisdom that lawyers had no place in a factory was lost on Honda. The company not only relied heavily on its local law firm as a friendly, English-speaking face in Ohio, it also hired two outside attorneys to help run the plants.
The legal background came in handy as Honda navigated often-unfriendly waters of regulatory, political, labor and environmental issues. Today, lawyers commonly oversee human resources, communications and other corporate affairs at auto plants operated by all manufacturers.
8 Cultural cross-training. Honda assigned legions of Japanese assembly managers to guide the smallest movements and decisions of the Marysville plant's U.S. work force. The automaker shipped hundreds of Honda recruits from Ohio to Japan to learn how to do things the right way. To some, these activities smacked of cultural chauvinism.
But Honda was not merely transplanting factory capacity to the U.S. market. It was transplanting an approach to production, an awareness of quality and a philosophy of human resources. Experienced workers from an established market trained inexperienced workers in a new market.
Today, this process occurs all over the world. Associates from Honda's Canada plant travel to Alabama to prepare workers there to build Odyssey minivans. Alabama associates travel to Japan to make suggestions about assembly processes.
9 Movable cars. Automaking 101 teaches that you spend millions of dollars to put a model into production at a factory. Then you leave it there until you've milked the last drop of profit from it. So why does Honda keep shuffling products from factory to factory? Because for Honda, at least, it works, encouraging flexibility and bringing vehicles closer to their designated markets.
With minimal interruption of production, it slipped Civic sedans into Ontario. It moved the CR-V from Japan to England, to export to the U.S. market. It put the Element into production in the Ohio Civic plant in less than a year. It moved the Odyssey from Canada to Alabama, and followed it with the Pilot. Now it is putting Accords onto the Ohio line that builds the Civic.
10 American exports. In 1987, Honda stunned the industry by declaring its intention to export 70,000 U.S.-built vehicles - some of them to Japan. That was contrarian thinking. Imports flowed from Japan and Europe to the United States, not the other way around.
But by the early 1990s, Honda had a brisk export stream going to Japan, Taiwan, Guam, Israel, Germany and France. Other automakers followed. BMW and Mercedes-Benz made global exports the basis of their first investments in North American plants.
Honda's North America exports peaked at 105,511 in 1994. It shipped 27,976 units from North America in 2003, including about 4,400 to Japan. Through July of this year, about 11,648 North America-built vehicles have been exported.