J. HENRY LYLE : Building Auto Industry Teams : Newport Beach Firm Helps Ford, UAW Join ‘Revolution’

Times staff writer

It is trashed by dissident members of the United Auto Workers as a scheme to maintain production while hiring fewer workers. But it is working its way slowly and surely into U.S. industry.

“It” is the Japanese-style “team concept” of industrial production--a program in which workers function in small groups that have greater responsibility in the production process and quality control. And it is responsible for more than a third of the $7 million in annual income that the J. Henry Lyle Co. of Newport Beach expects to pull in this year.

One of the team concept’s side effects is that management and labor end up working much more closely together. Another is that job descriptions and titles are done away with. Both things strike fear into the hearts of workers and managers throughout the automotive industry.

And that’s where J. Henry (Jim) Lyle comes in.


A soft-spoken advertising man and management consultant, Lyle was hired by the UAW and the Ford Motor Co. to help ease the firm and its workers into what he calls “the revolution.”

Lyle, 53, got his start in the automotive industry about 35 years ago when he worked on the assembly line at the Cadillac Motor Car Co.

“I was putting a wire in underneath the car,” he said, “and then I pounded in the bumper, and I did a few other things underneath the car. And I did it every day for eight hours a day for six months or so. It was a steady paycheck, and I felt good about that. I got health insurance.”

Lyle also worked a six-month stint in the late 1960s selling Fords in Royal Oak, Mich. He averaged 34 car sales per month on a two-day workweek. He later graduated to the advertising business, working automotive accounts for ad giant J. Walter Thompson.


He opened his namesake company in Detroit 14 years ago as an advertising and market-research firm serving the automotive industry. A large part of the firm’s work was in training sales people at more than 100 dealerships nationwide.

The company moved to Newport Beach in 1983. Three years later it branched into consulting with auto dealers on organizational development and strategic market planning. In 1988, the company was hired by the UAW and the Ford Joint Quality Improvement Implementation Committee to help introduce the team concept to Ford plants. To that end, the J. Henry Lyle Co. founded Operative Systems Inc.

Lyle, who is president of both firms, recently discussed the team concept with Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga.

Q. The Japanese-style team concept was in the news recently and controversially when the United Auto Workers had their national convention here. What is it all about?


A. What is the team concept? Well, it’s when you form a group and give it a purpose. Part of that purpose is continuous improvement within the group of what it produces. And to do that you have to continuously improve the conditions in the workplace and educate the worker. The team begins to work together, and members create a peer pressure that really is the reason for quality being constant over a period of time.

Q. How long has it been around in the automotive industry?

A. In the automotive plants during the Second World War, the team concept was prevalent in producing war products. And very successful. That would be probably the closest I could come to when the team concept started in the auto industry. But because of the conditions that existed in labor at that time, and the issues that both labor and the manufacturers had, they didn’t pick up on that team concept after the war. They went back to controlled management, directed management, the assembly line. The team concept didn’t come back to us until it went over to Japan and then came back.

Q. What is the alternative?


A. Control-directed management. The old assumption is that management knows everything, and the worker knows nothing. So management makes the decisions and tells the worker what to do. The team concept assumes that management and worker both know what to do, and that management has its prerogatives and the worker has his or her prerogatives. If you give the worker the ability to make decisions at that team’s workplace, the decisions get closer to the product and help improve the quality. The worker gets more involved. The worker feels more involved. He feels more a part of, rather than left out. The general attitude of the work area improves, the quality of the car improves, the cost of production is lowered.

Q. You make it sound like such a positive and glowing thing, but it has obviously engendered a lot of fear. We saw that at the UAW convention. The dissidents there, and other detractors, say that joint programs will do a variety of things, like eroding union protections, damaging the national UAW and costing jobs. How do you respond to that?

A. There is some fear in change, and that’s to be expected. That fear is manifest in a minority segment in the union of less than 10%. They say that if we can become better at our jobs, they’ll give us more to do, and our jobs will become more difficult and the better we become at our jobs we’ll be replaced by automation or robots, so we’re working our way out of business. That’s one way it’s perceived.

Q. How widespread is the use of the team concept in the automotive industry?


A. It’s only just begun. It takes time. It’s a process.

Q. The GM plant in Van Nuys has it, right?

A. In part. The New United Motors Plant in Fremont, Calif., is probably the hallowed plant in participative management, the joint venture between General Motors and Toyota.

Q. How is the team concept changing the relationship between union and management?


A. The old control-directed management operated by telling you what to do. “We don’t want any input from you. There is no feedback system. And that’s the way we’re going to do it. And production is No. 1. And we’re the boss.” The new way is, “We’re going to work as a team. Not only on the floor are you going to work as a team of five or six or seven and have cross skills, but we’re going to work as a team between management and leadership at the local level, at the regional level and at the national level. And we’re going to work together on making decisions: When do we build a plant? Why do we build a plant? What kind of car do we make? Decisions into conception as well as engineering and manufacturing and even beyond manufacturing, into delivery and then service. So we’re going to get the UAW involved in the whole process.”

Q. And the reaction to this?

A. Management has been programmed from 50 years of directive controlled management. And now, you say something like participative management and they say, “I don’t want to go to charm school. This is the way it’s worked for 35 years, the way I’ve worked it. And I’ve gone through the ranks, and I’ve been rewarded for controlling. And now you’re telling me I have to do it differently.”

Q. So management doesn’t like it and the unions don’t like it. Why are they doing it? Economic realities?


A. It’s not that they don’t like it, it is just that they are still getting used to it. Most do like it because both sides agree on something. They both have a common denominator, a vested interest. That vested interest is job security. Ford management is 60% less than it was five years ago. It’s not only the worker on the floor who was laid off when the plants closed down; it was the management. They did a diagonal slice through their management. That put the fear of God into everybody.

Q. Why did this happen?

A. We couldn’t compete on quality. That was the message driven home, clearly driven home. Now the worker says, “I know that I have to do this.” A full 90% of the workers are saying, “Hey, I agree with this. I think that my job security is important to me. I’m going to be able to have a second car and all those things that job security gives you in the auto industry.” In management, the preponderance of management believes in it too. But it’s like, “You know that person over there that you were fighting with, like the Hatfields and the McCoys? Now I want you to go be their friend. I think it’s in your best interests to do that.” Well, it takes me a little while to get used to McCoy. And that’s the process we’re going through now. We’re going through a transition and I think that its progress is really encouraging.

Q. How is this going to change the very tangible, specific, day-to-day job of someone who used to work on an assembly line? We don’t have a lot of auto workers in Orange County. How does the concept affect workers in general?


A. First, they get up with a different attitude. The more you know about your job, the higher your level of skill development, the better you feel about yourself and the work you do. It’s kind of basic. And that’s what’s happened to the worker. So the worker gets up and it’s not that “Oh, my God, I’ve gotta go to work” feeling. It’s “I’m going to get involved in decisions, my opinion counts.” So the worker has a new attitude about the job. “What am I going to learn today? What am I going to get involved in?”

Q. Those are the mental and emotional differences, but what about the very tangible, specific tasks workers do during the day. How would that change with the team concept?

A. If you’re constantly improving the process, the manufacturing process throughout the plant, your task is going to change. You’re going to find a better way of doing it. Health and safety gets involved. If you find that you’re bending over too much to pick up a part that’s too heavy, and you bring that to someone’s attention, the team will sit down and design something different that will ease the load so it’s not so much stress on your back. So that changes, and that’s participation. That’s a form of participation that’s really happening. So it makes the job easier.

Q. What else?


A. You may bring an idea to the job that increases the speed or the productivity of the job, but makes it easier to do. That’s an improvement. And then there are improved skills. If I learn somebody else’s job, or if I’m on a team of, let’s say, six members and we cross our skills, each day I may do a different job--if the team decides that and I decide that with the team. It’s not management that decides this. The team decides this. How can we do our job as a team? I may do six different jobs over the period of a week. Or I can relieve other people who are doing their jobs, so now the relief system and the ease of operation is increased because everyone has these skills.

Q. One of the effects of the team concept is doing away with specific job descriptions and titles, is that right?

A. Yes.

Q. But these are the issues that strike fear into workers. The team concept has been called a scheme to maintain the same level of production with fewer people. Are you seeing that happen?


A. Well, I think it’s inevitable. The work force is changing; the workplace is changing. We have job security in the contracts now, so people are secure with their jobs. As long as the plant needs to produce cars, you have your job, and that’s kind of important. That’s built into the contract. However, there is the need to remain competitive so that there are jobs and we are viable globally and nationally. You’re going to find that workers will become more skillful, and in the process, modularity in manufacturing is going to become more and more prevalent. You’ll be building larger parts, so you’ll need fewer parts. If you need fewer parts, you need fewer hands. So there’s going to be a slow attrition of the present work force to remain competitive. But the jobs of the workers today are protected.

Q. Is there any way that future jobs can be saved?

A. There are things that we are doing in Detroit that will create new jobs and new opportunities in the automotive business. As the decision making is pushed onto the floor and the worker gets more involved in the solutions rather than the problems, the worker becomes more knowledgeable. As the worker becomes more knowledgeable and the customers become more loyal, there is greater market share or penetration. Not fewer, but more jobs are created. So the operator becomes in more control over his or her own destiny.

Q. What if companies don’t join in the team concept of management?


A. Those firms will lose market share. These are things that will happen to those that are innovative and creative.

Q. Where does your company come in? The UAW hired you in 1988 to help it ease into the team concept. Is that about right?

A. Well, we were hired by the UAW and Ford on the Joint Quality Program. We go in the plant, on the national, divisional and local level. On the local level we work with plant managers, and we work with the president and chairman of the local union, on forming joint programs, developing quality group concepts. It’s quality groups rather than team concepts that we’re developing.

Q. What’s the difference?


A. One’s more palatable than the other as far as the worker is concerned.

Q. How so?

A. I think you answered that earlier when you asked me why is there this negativity about the team concept. If we talk about quality groups, the workers are more receptive. They’re less conditioned.

Q. So it’s just different title, same thing?


A. Different title, same thing.

Q. In working with Ford and the UAW, which side hired you?

A. Both sides. I’m straight down the middle.

Q. And both sides pay you?


A. Yes.

Q. What exactly do you do to allay the fears of a union member who thinks he’s going to lose his job because of this? Is that part of your job?

A. It’s part of our job. We work with communicating on all levels within the plant so things are understood. There’s clarity. If you’re going to get people to respond positively, you have to give them information so they can respond positively. If you leave something out, they get uneasy.

Q. Give me an example of what your company does to help ease the auto workers into this idea.


A. Well, last year, we closed down 40 plants at Ford, put up these huge tents that are 100 feet by 200 feet, and we put on a joint quality presentation between local UAW and national UAW people and local plant people and national Ford people. And we got all the workers under the tent, and we talked about market share and things gone wrong and things gone right, and how that relates to the product that they’re building, and how important it is to quality, to market share, and how each individual worker is important to the process.

Q. What was the response?

A. Of the 117,000 workers we talked to, 54,000 took the time to fill out a request of ours, to tell us about their workstations, what equipment and tools need to be improved, how we can improve their job or jobs. That kind of response is astounding.

Q. What plants are you specifically working at for Ford?


A. We’re working with the Wayne Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on the CT20 project, the new Escort, in developing the joint quality committees and programs, team-building within certain zones within the plant and gradually moving into a spirit of cooperation.

Q. Has that plant gone down at all in numbers of employees because of this?

A. No. It hasn’t. When we’re talking about going down in numbers of employees, we’re talking about the future.

Q. You were at the UAW convention a few weeks ago. What were you doing?


A. I was an observer.

Q. The dissidents were articulate and persuasive. I’m wondering if they spoke for a small minority or voiced the fears of a larger group of union members.

A. I think that they gave an intelligent presentation. I think the union members are quite bright. And I thought they represented their platform well. And I think the democratic process is to have a countervailing issue or group or caucus like that. But I don’t think that there were voters sitting back there who wanted to raise their hand with the dissidents but didn’t.