Ford: Driving Learning and Development ‘Way Forward’

Facing growing competition, Ford Motor Company sharpened its focus to create a performance culture in which all employees contribute to business results. Learning is a strategic tool to ensure that Ford builds the best and brightest talent in the auto ind

It’s par for the course for today’s organizations to claim that business is all about people first when it comes to staying ahead of the competition. Ford Motor Company has taken the phrase to heart. It had to. With competition growing apace, Ford has had to sharpen its focus more than ever before to create a performance culture where every employee contributes to the company and to business results. The Ford learning organization has moved from a university concept with hundreds of courses available for employees to take when desired to acting as a more strategic development tool that, when coupled with top-notch recruiting, serves to build some of the best and the brightest talent in the auto industry.

“Learning is recognized as an enabler, and we’re getting called in very early in the process to sit at the table, help (leaders) think through where they want to go and then be strategic partners,” said Don Shoultz, director, global launch planning, learning and development, and recruiting, Ford Motor Company. “I give a lot of the credit to our leadership because they value it, and it’s helped our organization, too, because it’s gotten us more focused as well.”

Ford manufacturers and distributes automobiles in 200 markets on six continents. With 330,000 employees, more than 100 plants worldwide and automotive-related services including the Ford Motor Credit Company, the organization recently constructed a “Way Forward” strategy to right-size its businesses in the midst of competitive pressure from foreign automakers and to take back its position as “America’s Car Company.” “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of focus around really being the best, making sure our quality is the best, making sure our design is the best, being extraordinarily focused on the customer,” Shoultz explained. “We’re working on some great, great stuff that is completely aligned with making our plants more efficient, continuing to improve quality. It’s all business-focused. It’s not seven different effective listening classes or a bunch of classes out there for people when they feel like they have some free time. Those days are just long gone.”

Streamlining plant activity, for instance, offered Ford’s learning and development organization an opportunity to make significant contributions. “We were one of the first groups he (Powertrain Manufacturing Executive Director Kevin Bennett) came to and said, ‘I can’t do this without learning because people will be doing their jobs differently. It might mean a plant taking on more work or different kinds of work.’ He saw it as a major learning event. He said, ‘Before I commit to Ford, I need your commitment that you’ll support this.’ This is exactly the kind of stuff that our team wants to work on. It’s much more fulfilling when you see a vehicle on the road that you know you’ve helped more in than just developing a course,” Shoultz said.

Getting that critical seat at the executive table wasn’t hard. A few months ago, Shoultz had the chance to spend some time with Executive Vice President Mark Fields, who is also president of the Americas, at Ford’s pilot plant where prototype vehicles are built. Shoultz said Fields asked him, “Now what can I do for you?”

“I said, ‘Well, we don’t want the little stuff anymore. We want to be players. Figure out how to move us from where we are now to where you want us to be,’” Shoultz said. “And he basically looked at me and said, ‘You got it.’ Two days later I was in Chris Michaels’ office, she’s the executive director of human resources, and basically we got the assignment to help cascade the Way Forward message. And by ‘cascade,’ I don’t mean communication. I mean a delivery mechanism so that every single employee in the company understands how the Way Forward message applies to them.”

Under the Way Forward strategy, Ford employees will cease performing their jobs in the same way they’ve done them in the past. Instead, they will focus on thinking like a small company, what that means and how that applies to them personally, so it then can be applied to the organization. Eventually, Shoultz said Ford’s workforce will know how to respond differently. “You have purchasing people, IT people, supervisors in plants, and they’re looking at the Way Forward message, and they’re very optimistic, but they’re asking, ‘How does this apply to me? I understand how it applies to the senior management, but it needs to work for me.’ That’s what we’re helping with.”

Ford has linked so many of its business operations to learning that development has become an indistinguishable value-add to everyday work. For example, during new product launches, there is often a prodigious amount of new tooling. There are upgrades, and employees might move from harder automation to flexible automation, which involves new technology. For more than a decade, Ford has continually developed a sophisticated process to ensure that everyone knows how to build products with quality. “In the old days, you would say, ‘Don’t buy a car in its first year. It’s going to have a lot of problems.’ We recognize that, and we’ve set up a process so that our hourly employees get involved easily a year and a half before the product is actually assembled,” Shoultz said. “They work with virtual builds and then physical builds about 13 or 14 months before job one. We have hourly employees from the plants who we call our product specialists, and they become experts in the vehicle. When we start building preproduction units at the plant, these product specialists will work with the regular workforce, and they’ll write quality process sheets, which is a learning tool that includes every single element of what they have to do, what tool to use, how to use it, and we post these job aides up at every workstation.”

Every plant around the world has a launch team, and learning leaders are in place at every major launch. Learning occurs in real time on the plant floor, and the learning leaders or product specialists are on hand to observe work in progress and ensure that learning is effective and has bottom-line impact. “When we train employees before the vehicle comes down the line, we do the training on what we call static units, stationary training bucks. You learn in a static situation so it isn’t the real vehicle coming down the line. You write your quality process sheet, which has all the job elements. You observe the expert, write down all the steps, then the next time you do it, I observe you to make sure that you do it correctly. Some jobs are more complicated than others. It could be a half a day spent making sure you know exactly how to do the job. That’s one way we measure. Then we measure our results based on quality targets. We don’t consider ourselves successful unless we achieve or beat our quality targets. Our quality targets aren’t just training targets that we trained 2,000 people. Our quality targets are, ‘Did we achieve the corporate quality goals?’”

“Our primary focus is improving performance for the business,” said Julie Lavender, manager of business solutions partners, Ford Motor Company. “We do things like develop curriculums in partnership with the businesses to prepare employees to do their jobs or to enhance performance. Our customer service division just created, in partnership with us, a needs analysis, and now we’re working on about an 11-course curriculum that their employees will engage in the first year or two after their preliminary training to help them service the dealerships better, understand their own business case, understand financials, understand the principles of customer satisfaction, those kinds of things. There was a need in the business to up-skill their employees to face off with dealers. In concert with the customer and their needs, we’re now working on a curriculum to support that need. That’s the kind of thing we’re engaged in all over the company.

“We’re business people in addition to learning specialists,” Lavender added. “We have to get a clear idea of the business need, and we have to be willing to consult and say, ‘You know, training’s not going to fix your problem. Maybe you need an OD intervention. Maybe you’ve got process issues that are causing the problem.’ It’s just not developing a training class. We need to really understand what the business is saying is their need and then develop the solution based on that.”

Learning, strategic business assessment and evaluation are integrated to ensure that what needs to get done gets done by the right people. This integration often involves diagnostic tools such as competencies to figure out what different populations around the company need. Integration also is part of thinking like a small company. Ford has a centralized learning organization, but over time smaller satellite organizations have popped up during years of excess in response to genuine business needs.

“We’ve just integrated a major technical organization called FDI, the Ford Design Institute, which does most of our technical training in the company, and that’s a global organization,” Shoultz said. “We just integrated Powertrain Core Competencies, bringing in all satellite learning organizations under a central learning organization. We’re doing that for two reasons. Number one, we know there are tremendous synergies as we start to work together. We have instructional system design people, development people, graphics people, and there are tremendous opportunities to share resources and to produce higher quality at a reduced cost.

“Secondly, we’ve also started merging some of our talent management organizations like recruiting. We have leadership programs designed to accelerate high-potential employees through the company and give them greater and faster exposure to significant jobs, which will help us determine if they really do have that kind of potential, and if they do get them into a leadership position more quickly. We’ve started to meld those together with learning. Talent management and learning are beginning to be viewed as one organization. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of some great leveraging that we can do. Then senior management can basically call us up and have one-stop shopping. They can call, and we can come up with an integrated solution for them. The foundation to make this work is a passion around the business to meet the needs and exceed the expectations of our internal customers around learning and development. That’s where we’re headed.”

–Kellye Whitney,