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Inside a North American Honda Plant

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Two weeks ago, our class had the opportunity to meet with Scott Whitlock, a retired lawyer-turned plant manager of the first American Honda assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio. During his time as a plant manager, Mr. Whitlock faced a unique challenge that many of his counterparts at other facilities and other auto manufacturers did not: his plant was the largest (and one of the only) in the U.S. whose workers were not unionized. While this did afford him some advantages in managing his workers, it also presented many difficulties, as he was managing a largely unprecedented situation.

Unlike plants which dealt with union leaders, there was no skeleton for salary and benefits negotiations or representation policies for workers. There was no point of reference for solving disputes between the non-union workers in the plant and the minority of workers who wanted to be unionized. The unique ways that Mr. Whitlock handled these challenges proved to be beneficial for both the plant itself and the workers. For example, the plant was able to institute an attendance/tardy policy for workers. Workers who showed up to work on-time every day for each month received a bonus. The worker in each section of the plant whose monthly attendance was the worst was fired. Such a policy would not have been possible in a unionized plant, as Mr. Whitlock would have constantly been arguing with union leaders about the wrongful termination of employees, regardless of whether or not their firing was legitimate based on poor attendance. However, Mr. Whitlock needed to find a way to make the workers feel empowered and give them rights within the plant. The problem was that there was no such successful model to borrow from in other plants. Mr. Whitlock turned to his legal background to approach the problem.

When an employee was brought up for firing based on the attendance policy, he was able to request an appeal in front of a colleague advisory board. The board was made up of 6 other floor workers and the supervisor who decided that the worker would be fired. These 7 people changed for each hearing, and after the worker in question stated his case, would vote on whether or not he would stay. Allowing workers’ peers to decide whether or not someone deserved to be fired made the entire workforce feel like they had authority within the company, as people who worked next to them every day could decide whether or not the problems affecting his work were valid rather than a supervisor who did not work in the same conditions and understand the worker’s personal background. In some ways, this hearing process gave the Honda plant workers more rights than their unionized counterparts in other plants. On occasion, union leaders would defer the argument against the firing of an individual employee in order to negotiate better rights and benefits for the rest of the work force.

Aside from dealing with its workers, the Honda plant had an established culture that rang throughout all of its functions. When a shipment of windshields being sent to the plant was late and supplies were out, there were two courses of action. The first was letting the cars without windshields continue down the assembly line and installing the windshields by hand at the end, with lesser quality than if they had been automatically installed by machines on the line. The alternative was stopping the line until the shipment arrived so that the machines could install them, resulting in an undetermined amount of costly downtime in production. The decision was not made by one of the higher up plant supervisors, but rather the worker on the assembly line whose station was in question. He stopped the line to wait for the windshields, which was the right decision according to Mr. Whitlock. The plant’s processes were dictated by a list of four priorities, in order: worker safety, quality, production, costs. The plant refused to tolerate products of a lesser quality and costing consumers rather than taking the hit themselves.

The plant as a whole echoed many of the same principles that Honda as a whole believes in. The brand loyalty that Honda has and the willingness of their customers to bring their cars back to Honda dealers for service and maintenance is envied by many other companies. When trying to understand how they have been able to achieve this success, perhaps one should look all the way back to the plants where the cars are first assembled to see how far down the corporate ladder this commitment to quality and its employees reaches.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for conveying your discussion with Mr. Whitlock. Industrial unions gained strength in the 1930s because companies had no personnel policies, no work rules, often no central hiring or pay rules. (This differed from the 1920s, when what was later called “welfare capitalism” was diffusing among large firms, more-or-less formalized paternalism. However, in most companies that system collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression, as companies sought to cut costs wherever possible.)

    May 19, 2013

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