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.