How Honda Drives Its Workforce

Gary Cameron/Reuters

One reason for the success of Honda as an automobile maker in the US is its unconventional approach to hiring key executives. In this excerpt from his new book, Driving Honda: Inside the World's Most Innovative Car Company, Jeffrey Rothfeder describes how Honda concluded that a former Marine Reservist would make a great manager.

Sam Fluker is a man who easily commands respect. He's about 30 years old, large and imposing, a former Marine Reserve. But it's not just his bearing that compels people to listen to what he says. It is also his dark eyes, determined and searing.

At the Honda plant in Lincoln, Alabama, where he is an inventory control manager, Fluker supervises upward of 300 people, who log, inspect, and dispatch supply parts into the factory as they arrive in a steady stream by day and night.

Fluker, who is black, grew up in the Lincoln area, in a lower­ middle-class neighborhood, and graduated from Auburn University about two hours south of his hometown with a degree in systems engineering.

He never expected to work in an automobile factory. Rather, upon finishing college, he envisioned a life as an officer in the Marines, and if he eventually did work in the private sector, it would be in the supply chain of a clean business like Walmart or in a relatively light industry like textile manufacturing.

But that tidy plan changed when he met Honda recruiters at an Auburn job fair in his senior year. By this point, Fluker was in his early twenties, married, and his wife was pregnant; he was a bit over­whelmed by his responsibilities but felt that his military aspirations would provide a smooth transition into a relatively stable career in which he didn't have to worry about losing his job and his income.

Upon meeting Fluker at the fair, the Honda executives imagined his future differently. The Lincoln factory, the most advanced in Honda's portfolio, would open in August 2001, within the next year, and the automaker was looking for dependable, self-reliant, meticulous, principled, and creatively thoughtful people to work there.

Experience in the auto industry -- or any knowledge of auto manufacturing, for that matter -- was not a requirement; conscientiousness, an independent disposition and assiduousness were. Fluker had these characteristics in spades.

In a series of interviews for the job at Honda, Fluker was asked about his home life and his goals, his hobbies and his passions, how he would address specific personal challenges at work involving coworkers -- belligerence, bullying, undercutting and tattling, for example -- more than he was queried about his knowledge of logistics and supply chains or his unfamiliarity with the automobile sector.

As the interviews progressed it became clear to him that Honda would make him an offer that would ultimately lead to a manage­ment role.

"I think I got them with my work ethic and my personal story of what I achieved on my own -- to be a senior in college, working a full-time job, having a wife, a baby on the way, and being a Marine. And I was honest to a fault with them. I didn't even think I wanted the job, so I had nothing to lose," said Fluker.

"In fact, it probably would have been easier if I didn't get the job so I could just do the plan I had in mind for myself. Turns out, that's exactly the kind of person they love to hire."

Indeed, Honda's hiring and employee promotion practices, like so many aspects of the company, defy logic — at least of the sort that most other organizations subscribe to. The unorthodox ways that Honda chooses employees — and the unorthodox employees that Honda chooses—stand in sharp contrast to typical auto industry practices.

Most automobile manufacturing jobs are filled by people who evince a love for vehicles, some technical knowledge about cars and the personality to follow directions closely, whether in a lean Japanese factory or a less disciplined American plant — a formula that Honda perceives as limiting and lacking in imagination.

Instead, Honda seeks workers who have charted an irregular course, whose path in life has been a bit odd and unconventional. And the farther they've strayed from the auto industry — and are free of the preexisting biases about how automobile manufacturing should be done — the better. "We want independent people, who can see auto manufacturing with fresh eyes, not blind followers," said Honda CEO Takanobu Ito on many occasions.

Ito's comment is a sanitized and more practical version of the qualification that Soichiro Honda said he looked for when making hiring decisions, according to lean expert James Womack, coauthor of The Machine That Changed the World. Asked for the single most important attribute that an ideal Honda applicant should have, Soi­chiro noted that he preferred "people who had been in trouble."

Soichiro was obviously being cheeky. But not entirely so. In only a slightly roundabout way, he was articulating Honda Motor's third critical organizational principle: respect individuals and, more pre­cisely, individualism.

Since the company's founding, Honda has stood alone in aggressively questioning and then often breaking the rules for how a successful industrial outfit should behave. That contrarian streak has gotten Honda into uncomfortable feuds with, for example, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which Honda defied upon making and then exporting its first cars, and with rival Japanese companies in calling for trade liberalization that would permit more imports of products from global rivals.

Moreover, that attitude has drawn skepticism (undue, as it turns out) after some of Honda's more outrageous departures from the norm, such as the decision as a start-up to construct its own dies and stamping equipment (and since then virtually all of its factory hardware and software), its longshot entries against established compa­nies in world-class motorcycle and Formula l races, or its confidence that it could build an engine that cleared the Environmental Protection Agency's pollution standard before any other carmakers.

Such untempered innovation in ideas and practice can only be achieved with employees who, in fact, wouldn't flourish -- who would, in Soichiro's words, be in trouble -- in organizational models constructed primarily around rules and structured systems, no mat­ter how progressively or intelligently plotted, Honda believes. Or put positively, an individual who can thrive in paradox and contradiction, who would instinctively explore the way things are traditionally done expressly to contradict them -- who, in fact, sees a glass not as half full or half empty, but as twice the size that it needs to be and considers designing a vessel with different dimensions -- would be a suitable Honda candidate.

In this, as in many other ways, Honda views itself as the mirror image of Toyota, its oldest rival. In a recent interview with me, Womack recalled a wonderfully humorous conversation he had with Shoichiro Irimajiri, who ran Honda's North American operations in the 1980s, in which Irimajiri depicted the personalities of the two gi­ant Japanese automakers through colorful descriptions of their employees.

"'I will now imitate Toyota man,'" Womack remembered Irimajiri saying. "At which point Irimajiri puts on blinders and then proceeds to walk straight into the wall and fall down. He said, 'Ah, Toyota man. Very, very good in a straight line. But no peripheral vi­sion, like the Roman legions.' "

Then, Irimajiri said, according to Womack: "'Ah, now, Honda man.' Without the blinders, Irimajiri's down crouching behind the furniture and he's running around from one side of the room to the other, and he says, 'Honda man, guerrilla fighter. Honda man loves chaos. Toyota man hates, hates chaos.' "

Honda's off ­kilter approach to hiring—its belief that each indi­vidual must actively redefine the contours of his or her job rather than the other way around—has produced some eyebrow-­raising employment policies, starting at the very top.

Each of Honda's CEOs came up through the company's engineering ranks. And all of them at some time were former chiefs of the automaker's prized autonomous research and development unit.

That's an extraordinary record: conventional wisdom among multinationals holds that the most effective chief executives are specialists in marketing, sales, or perhaps accounting, anything but en­gineering. As a result, even CEOs in technologically based industries, like pharmaceuticals or computer hardware and software, tend to know little about designing or manufacturing the products that they sell.

Still, that's not considered a disadvantage because the skills that engineers are thought to have most are believed to be the least valu­able to a corporation's financial performance.

Excerpted from Driving Honda: Inside the World's Most Innovative Car Company by Jeffrey Rothfeder, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Jeffrey Rothfeder, 2014.