More on Mulally’s "First Impressions"


Here's what jumped out at me from Friday's WSJ articles on Alan Mulally: his “war room” and his “first impressions.” (both articles require paid WSJ subscriptions, I believe).

Free version of the war room article is here.

In the “war room” article, reporters are taken to the command center for the Ford turnaround.

The posted pages contain charts, graphs and lists of Ford products and markets — his road map to turn around the troubled auto maker. There are also photos of Ford executives in charge of various divisions, to show who is accountable. Pages are coded in red, yellow and green, indicating the severity of the problems.

There is an element of visual management, a lean concept, in the red/yellow/green. That's not rocket science. But, later in the article, there' s a discussion about how Mulally handles the color coding (a more important point):

When one manager offered up the poor performance of his unit, some Ford executives were stunned by Mr. Mulally's reaction. He applauded, saying: “Great visibility.” Mr. Mulally coached his team on using the colored graphs and lists. “We got to the yellows and the reds pretty quickly…within a month,” the CEO says.

When a color improves, “it's a chance to celebrate,” he adds.

Mulally is trying to change a culture that traditionally HIDES its problems to one that discusses them openly, without fear of being embarrassed or unduly criticized. I like that leadership example and it's a move toward a Toyota Way type culture (a baby step, but an important one).

The article shared an example of how Ford execs don't share information openly (due to a culture that favored competition and looking good over cooperation and sharing problems, I'd guess):

After Mr. Mulally asked each business head to present his results and forecasts, he complained that the numbers didn't make sense. “Why don't all the pieces add up for the total corporate financials?” he recalls asking.

“We don't share everything,” he says one manager replied, explaining that Ford executives ran their units without meshing with other divisions, occasionally holding back some information. Mr. Mulally was floored. The next week, executives came back with complete figures.

Mulally's push for a “lean global enterprise” isn't just about manufacturing efficiency:

Mr. Mulally also scrambled to familiarize himself with Ford's vehicles. Recently, on a table in his office, he laid out 12 different metal rods that Ford uses to hold up a vehicle's hood. He wanted to demonstrate to managers that this kind of variation is costly but doesn't matter to consumers.

It's a great lesson in defining value from the customer's standpoint as opposed to the engineer's standpoint. GM used to play the game of being concerned that a Cadillac owner wouldn't want to share parts with a Chevrolet. Ridiculous. Cadillac customers want performance and styling that's better or different than a Chevy, not under-the-hood parts that they would rarely see (like windshield washer reservoir caps).

In his “first impressions” email to the company (sent around in October), Mulally emphasizes the cultural point again:

I've started weekly Business Plan Reviews with the senior leadership team. Together we look at one set of data on one screen. We talk to each other with candor and respect. We are all determined to get to one plan for our company. We will all participate, and we will all support each other's efforts to succeed. I don't yet know everything I need to know about Ford, but I do know that this is the only way I can work.

“Candor and respect” — again, that sounds like the Toyota Way. Mulally is building around a “3 P's” strategy of sorts:

– PEOPLE: A skilled and motivated work force.
– PRODUCTS: Detailed customer knowledge and focus.
– PRODUCTIVITY: A lean global enterprise.

Not bad for an airplane guy. It goes to show that leadership transcends different industry boundaries. Mulally is using the same management playbook that he learned at Boeing and from studying Toyota. That said, he's trying to learn the auto industry:

Shortly after his arrival here, Mr. Mulally and his new troops bought books to better understand one another. The new CEO read the 1926 classic “Today and Tomorrow” by Henry Ford. He also met with the Ford family at the Henry Ford Museum complex early on. Ford managers began passing around “The Machine That Changed the World,” often cited by Mr. Mulally for its in-depth story of Toyota's manufacturing operation.

As we've discussed here on the blog…. is “Machine” really the most recent and most relevant book Mulally could be passing around? What about the Toyota Way series? What Jamie's “Hitchhiker's Guide?” What advice would you give Mulally, on books or otherwise?

Please check out my main blog page at

The RSS feed content you are reading is copyrighted by the author, Mark Graban.

, , , on the author's copyright.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleMulally’s Early Lean Leadership at Ford
Next articleFord’s Mulally meets with Toyota
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Ford has a long ways to go, BUT, I can honestly say after reading the latest articles on what Mulally is doing at Ford I am poised to buy a large number of stocks.

    Mulally will have a lot of support from Wall Street & eventually “his” front line, where the battle will be won or lost is not at the Executive Level but at the Plant Management & 1 level below that. If he can transcend the Culture, Ford might have a shot! Only Time will tell, just hope most at Ford do not get an itchy finger….

  2. Mark,
    Certainly there are better books with regard to lean… but I think “The Machine That Changed the World” is really where everyone should start in the auto industry. I re-read it this year and it is amazing what a book it was/is and how many companies are still so far behind, even if they have had the evidence available for so long.

    Besides, as an executive, if your boss was saying the word lean in every other sentence…I think I would be getting deliveries from Amazon every week.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.