Monday, May 18, 2009

When Working for a Company is an Honor -- Visit to BMW - Leipzig

Today was the first day of a four-day visit to the BMW facility located in Leipzig, Germany for our 16 students from the University of Dayton study abroad program. We were given the rather unique opportunity for faculty and students from an American institution to explore how BMW's corporate culture has taken root in the former DDR. The manufacturing facility consists of a stamping and fabrication plant, a paint plant, and assembly unit that produces the 1 and 3 series of BMWs. It opened several years ago and may well be the most modern and sophisticated operation in Europe. Currently, due to the world-wide downturn in demand, the plant runs one shift only, although it has the capacity to run two shifts at about 45 cars per hour.

After an introduction from human resources and quality staff, and a brief historical review, several hours in the afternoon were spent in touring the plant. If you want to see lean production methods in practice, this plant is a very good example. And the paint shop area does remarkable things, particularly in terms of the recycling of the final clear coat materials. Indeed this a "green," energy-efficient plant in numerous aspects, including lighting, heating, and cooling.

What struck me about this visit, however, was something I had also heard at Porsche in Stuttgart during my journey last week. Namely, employees at BMW feel honored to work for their employer. How many American auto workers of the past two generations have felt that way? I doubt there are many, although I am sure some workers at all levels did hold to that positive view of work at their particular company. It is an attitude that leads to excellence and quality workmanship, no matter how lowly or important the task. And our failure to honor our work and source of our earnings certainly has contributed to our decline as a competitive economic power. The call to vocation may be seen as an old-fashioned value, but it does have considerable merit in today's world.

At the end of the day I gave an hour lecture on the Golden Age of the automobile in America, the 1950s. In addition to a survey of designers and designs, manufacturers that included the various independents, and corporate sales strategies, I emphasized the importance of culture in terms of how a society makes decisions about technologies. You can get this story by reading chapter 8 of my book The Automobile and American Life. My point to the folks at BMW is that if you are to capture the market of a particular nation, you must penetrate its culture, and become an integral part of it. That is what happened in the 1950s as the American car industry was at the heart of film, music, and important writing.

Yet this Golden Age was not all that golden -- the decade marked the rise of the first serious wave of automobile critics. Also, safety became an issue, as well as dealer abuses. And in California, smog began to emerge as a serious public health matter. Further, with a relaxing of credit requirements after 1953 and the shift in corporate leadership at GM away from engineering to finance and accounting, the seeds were sown for what we now reap as our industry faces tremendous challenges to maintain its autonomy in the global automotive industry.

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