Creation, Rome, Chrysler

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

God created all of existence in seven days, Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, and Bob Nardelli plans to change Chrysler’s corporate culture somewhere between (in three days, to be exact).

Well, not exactly, as there’s a yearlong effort underway to remake the company’s culture, and these three days are simply the centerpiece. The theme: putting the customer first in all of Chrysler’s operations. HR is involved, and lots of tools and practices from GE are getting imported. Sessions.  Workshops. The whole shebang.

You might have thought that customers were already central to the business, in that Chrysler is in the business of making vehicles for them. 

But that’s the rub: employees must be taught customer centricity, which is something different altogether.

Think of what Nardelli is up against. Chrysler can’t design, manufacture, or sell vehicles that people want, generally, so its market share has plummeted. After a utterly failed marriage with Daimler Benz, the company was purchased by a leveraged buyout firm (Cerberus). People were fired and factories closed, and little secret has been made of the new owners’ intentions of wringing profits from their purchase, one way or another.

Now add the gas crisis, which obviates any of the guzzlers Chrysler would have hoped to sell (and which usually had the best profit margins for all automakers), and the outlook for the company is not terribly rosy. Nobody working there can feel to secure, let alone good, about their jobs…except the gurus brought in by the owners.

So the most important thing those gurus have to tell the employees is that they must become customer centric?

This is dim bulb communications at its dimmest.

What ever happened to the vision thing? Chrysler is a company in search of a purpose for existing, isn’t it? With a storied history as an engineer’s carmaker, and as a smaller, independent company among lumbering giants, there’s lots of stuff here for a Big Picture view. 

The world doesn’t need another lame, has-been manufacturer, however efficient it might be.  Inertia is not a good enough reason to stay in the marketplace, and it certainly doesn’t make Chrysler competitive. 

Just harken back to the nonsense "New Day" advertising that Chrysler spent millions on right after the buyout. Running a campaign with no connection to reality was anything but new.

Employees are a branding opportunity, really, but it would take real actions, not just words. Nardelli could be telling them what they’re a part of, how they fit in, and where the entire company is going. They could spend days, weeks, years striving and building toward these goals. 

Telling them even directly that they are the problem, or that the culture has to change — before the strategic vision, commitment to employees, and every other variable that influences business success or failure — is tantamount to an insult.

Consultant drivel about customer centricity is so a few years ago. It’s unactionable, feel-good nonsense.

But Chrysler’s employees aren’t dumb. I bet they know what’s going on, and that the customer centricity blather will absolutely sink in. 

They’ll likely respond by digging their heels in when the next round of union negotiations come around. The smart ones are already hunting for new jobs or professional retraining classes.

In the end, the "customers" at the heart of Chrysler are the buyout investors who own the thing. 

I doubt that it’ll take long to dismantle it so they can get paid.

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