To succeed in automaking, a company must strive for continuous improvement. Individual employees should be empowered; labor relations, cordial; assembly plants, flexible; and changeover between model years, rapid and seamless. Dealers should have considerable input to headquarters. In the showroom and in the shop, a customer should receive flawless service.
That might sound like the contemporary gospel of Japanese automakers, but it was standard practice in the 1920s and 1930s at Chevrolet, as revealed in the newly available papers of former General Motors President William S. Knudsen.
If GM had continued to heed the wisdom of that down-to-earth leader, it might not be in such a pickle today - though Knudsen himself might be the first to grasp the failings that led to the current situation.
Was long shot
He was a long shot to shape America's best-selling brand. Born in 1879 in Denmark, Knudsen arrived in New York in 1900 and worked in a shipyard, a railroad shop and a bicycle factory.
Eventually, he moved to Detroit and became production chief at Ford Motor Co.'s Highland Park, Mich., plant. He left Ford in 1921 and spent a year in the steel business before joining Chevrolet, where he became president and general manager in 1922.
"I am a great admirer of you and your methods," GM director Pierre S. duPont wrote to Knudsen. "It is rare that one finds a man of your strength and ability so entirely free from prejudice and jealousy and so willing to cooperate with others. Your patience in straightening out Chevrolet's troubles has been wonderful."
Chevrolet sold 153,270 cars and light trucks in 1922, the year Knudsen took over. He pushed the division to become the industry's top seller with 752,642 cars and light trucks in 1927. Ford Motor, which was changing over to production of the Model A, sold 492,875 Ford brand cars and light trucks in 1927.
Of his success at Chevrolet, Knudsen told an interviewer, "We have achieved whatever degree of flexibility in production that we have through delegating responsibility to various men down the line in all our production operations."
Plant managers responsible
Each plant manager was responsible for selection and purchase of equipment. Quality improved.
"Really good workmanship isn't so hard to get, once you get men into the habit of working carefully," Knudsen said.
On May 12, 1928, he presented to GM President Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and the executive committee the full-sized model of the 1929 Chevrolet. It was to be the first six-cylinder Chevy.
By Jan. 1, 1929, some 25,000 of those new marvels - "A Six for the Price of a Four" -were in dealers' hands.
The development team worked itself ragged; but compared with Ford's changeover to the Model A, they had just a brief (seven-week) shutdown to convert all assembly plants. (Ford was down almost five months from the last Model T to the first Model A.)
Knudsen shrugged off suggestions that the job had worn him down. "Oh, a little bit," he said. "But it's all in a day's work."
Assuming the GM presidency in 1937, Knudsen held a press conference in which he speculated on the future of diesel engines - an enduring topic, to be sure. He also spoke of the need for dealers to meet with management and "put everything on the table and tell us frankly what is wrong with us. We always find out something we didn't know before, you see."
'A better way'
His views on customer service anticipated the breakthroughs of Lexus and Saturn: "Maybe there is a better way of selling things that we haven't thought of before. After all, it is the service that you give if you can improve that service, then you can sell more service."
The strikes of 1936-37 remained on Knudsen's mind. An adviser warned against neglecting the public relations value of periodic operational statements sent directly to workers.
Nowadays, maverick GM director Jerry York is investigating corporate operations, and The Wall Street Journal praises him for the "radical idea" of bypassing the UAW and sending "GM news and negotiating positions directly to workers' homes."
Hmmm, maybe that isn't so radical after all.
Knudsen claimed no magic formula. Admittedly a poor planner, he said the executives just stumbled along. "If we stumble going forward, then we are going ahead. If we stumble standing still, we are drunk. And if you stumble going backward, you are going to lose a lot of time getting up again. None of us are wonder men, you know."
The nonwonder men of today may take heart from Knudsen's timeless precepts. Just don't claim to have invented them.
Ronald Ahrens is a freelance writer. You may e-mail him at [email protected]