The Big None

By D. Blanchard, Editor-In-Chief of Industry Week

I'm always a sucker for Christmas movies, and while channel surfing this past December I came across a scene that made me think I had found another updating of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol": Three penniless waifs were groveling in front of a mean old miser who refused at first to even acknowledge their existence, even though they kept up their pathetic cries for a handout. The cranky old money-grubber, though, tells them to leave, go home, stop bothering me. But that's hardly the end of it, as a group of charity workers come calling on the miser, pleading the cause of the poor and destitute. With a heart of stone, though, the old skinflint says matter-of-factly that if the poor are going to collapse from lack of funds, then they should be quick about it and decrease the surplus population.

As it turns out, Ebenezer Scrooge was nowhere in sight-this Dickensian scene was acted out on our TV screens with the Detroit Three chiefs-Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Bob Nardelli- playing the part of the waryward beggers, Congress as a whole embodying the role of Scrooge, and various pundits and opinion-makers taking up the cause of the charity workers.

If I didn't know any better, watching this bailout spectacle unfold, I'd assume that Congress actually wants the Detroit Three automakers to fail. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, since the Democrats clearly want to hang onto as many union-friendly votes as they can get in Michigan, while the Republicans would have even less Wall Street cred then they do now if they allow an American manufacturing icon to crumble. And in this current climate, standing by and doing nothing while tens of thousands more workers are laid off doesn't sound like a good idea, either.

There is this nagging issue of personal accountability, though, which rarely ever comes up whenever a Congress-person or a senator is handed a microphone. It's all well and good to point a finger at a well-heeled corporate executive like Wagoner, and ask why he fiddled while Detroit was burning, but it's quite another for Congress as a whole to ask itself, "Should we maybe have helped level the playing field for the Detroit Three and all U.S. manufacturers, instead of running them into the ground with regulatory constraints their foreign competitors don't face. Should we start figuring out how to drastically reduce the trade deficit with China and other Asian countries before we lose every last manufacturing job here in the United States?"

The people running the auto companies, too, could use a healthy dose of introspection. Why, for instance, when asked point-blank to create a business plan that would guarantee they'd at least be around long enough to pay back their sweetheart-deal loans, they instead mouth empty platitudes like, "We'll cut the salaries of our highest-paid executives" and "We'll look into selling off our least-popular product lines" or "We'll get serious about developing more fuel-efficient vehicles"? Imagine if Detroit had a true-to-life visionary who could have gone in front of Congress and said, "It's time we got serious about adopting the same lean principles that have made Toyota the envy of the industrial world. What we're going to do immediately is identify and then eliminate waste in every aspect of our business. If I could draw your attention to the value stream map now appearing on the screen..."

Everybody seems to assume that Toyota emerged fully formed as a lean manufacturer, but as Jim Womack, founder of The Lean Institute, reminds us, "Toyota only decided to comprehensively embrace lean enterprise after the bust of the Japanese economy brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy in 1950."

Maybe instead of "A Christmas Carol," the movie that better symbolizes the current state of the U.S. auto industry might be "It's a Wonderful Life." We've reached that moment when we should ask: "What would U.S. manufacturers be like if the Detroit Three didn't exist anymore?" And then hope there's at least one guardian angel willing to ensure a happy ending to this tragedy of errors.