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The Value of “People First”: Ford Lean Legend Offers Management Insight

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Alan Mulally demonstrated the value of putting people first when his unique management style helped transform a struggling Ford Motor Co. A former CEO for both Boeing and Ford, Mulally has strong experience in managing complex products. Yet he puts the greatest emphasis on people over product.

During a  recent Lean Enterprise Institute podcast, Mulally defined “people first”:

“‘People first’ means love all the participants. Appreciate that they are part of a bigger vision to create something special – to create value for people, a strategy for achieving it and a process of working together to achieve it.”

Strategies to put your people first

Whether you’re looking to transform a multinational manufacturing operation or simply boost productivity on your plant floor, there are a number of strategies one can take from Mulally to put your people first.

Make it all about all people. 

Include everyone by your product in this definition. That includes consumers and end-users, employees, suppliers, financiers, regulatory agencies, etc.

Start with a compelling vision.

Add a plan for achieving it. “It’s important to come together around a compelling vision for the product, a strategy for achieving it and a relentless implementation plan,” Mulally said. At Ford, that meant a weekly business review of problems (or opportunities) to solve and big-picture trends impacting the industry.

Set clear performance goals.

These goals must be based on solid data, and be consistent across the organization. When Ford operated around one vision and shared performance metrics, everyone was dedicated to furthering the same plan. Suddenly, silos collapsed and stress was reduced as everyone worked together to solve the same challenges.

Provide transparency.

By giving employees insight into the bigger company plan and its status, leaders make employees feel part of something bigger. This helps employees feel more engaged and pushes them to do their best work.

Encourage problem discovery.

When Mulally joined Ford, he made it clear that he wanted to know the problems every departmental leader faced. During the first weekly business meeting, he encouraged department leaders to bring problems to address. Virtually everyone indicated that everything was going well, despite clear financial evidence otherwise. Only one person spoke up. This gave Mulally an opportunity to show the value of finding problems. He encouraged everyone to work together and identify solutions, a process that happened within seconds. It took a few weeks of committing to this format before everyone felt it was okay to raise concerns. As Mulally said, it took time to get everyone to trust the process “and deal with reality.”

Attitude is important.

Mulally encouraged leaders to stay positive in proposing new plans, respect and listen to others, and trust the process.

Have fun.

“There’s nothing more fun than creating value for the people of our world with these great [products],” Mulally commented. But he pointed out that the opposite is also true: never make a joke at someone else’s expense. If people think they’re going to be made fun of, they’ll never be forthcoming on the real state of activities.


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