Our Perspective: Investing in People, Not Just Technology

Every experience I’ve had over the last 22 years working at Honda has given me the chance to learn new and different things from our talented team at the Alabama Auto Plant. You can’t truly know the job until you are doing the job, and no one has more hands-on experience than our associates who are at the spot, doing their jobs with world class craftmanship every day.

From time to time, there are suggestions from outside the company that there is a better approach. Yet, over the past four decades, no automaker has been more successful in growing its production operations in America than Honda – going from a single plant in Ohio to 12 plants in seven states employing almost 23,000 associates in production-related roles. Of course, this includes our Alabama Auto Plant, which now employs some 4,500 associates.

I attended college in Birmingham and observed as the state of Alabama was buzzing with excitement for Honda’s arrival and the fast-approaching mass production start-up in Lincoln. I knew then I wanted to be a part of Honda’s success story in Alabama and I joined the Honda team immediately after graduating, in 2001. I vividly remember watching the first official Alabama-built vehicle roll off our production line and the celebration that followed. I couldn’t imagine that in a little over two decades, our team would be the source of more than six million vehicles and engines shipped across the world.

One key to our success is something we call The Honda Way – a culture based on teamwork, respect and open communication, a One Team approach that empowers associate involvement in problem-solving and innovation. A great example of this teamwork starts each time we design and develop a new product. I’ve been involved in the launch of ten all-new vehicle models in Alabama, as part of the purchasing and supply chain teams, to later leading one of our production lines, I’ve seen every stage of what it takes to bring a new model to life. Trust me, it doesn’t happen without teamwork.

Before each one goes into production, our Honda associates typically contribute hundreds of suggestions for changes to the product and the processes that will be used to build them. These efforts enable us to create a work environment that is safer for associates while achieving higher quality for our customers. That’s an incredible win-win.

We value the opinions and the experience of associates who are working “at the spot” on the production line regardless of their title or rank. When our associates have concerns about a production process, we not only want to hear about it, we want their suggestions for how to fix and improve the issues they face.

Award-winning Workplace Ergonomics
Safety for our production associates has always been our priority, something we formalized into the Honda Ergonomic Guidelines.

While improving ergonomics is not about winning awards, Honda has been recognized for these efforts. The Ergo Cup is an independent competition that highlights successful ergonomic solutions in North America. In the Ergo Cup’s 18 years, Honda associates have won 17 awards, including associates from each of our auto plants in the U.S. and Canada.

Efforts to re-route a wiring harness or add a lift-assist device for a heavy part to make a task easier might seem small and mundane, but changing a process that is repeated over and over again each day can have an enormous impact on the health and safety of our associates.

Just as we continue to update the product with all-new styling and features, we also invest in the processes, technologies and equipment that we use to make it safer and easier to build.

Early Involvement is the Key
Our Alabama Auto Plant is the only place in the world where we build our four products – the Odyssey minivan, Ridgeline pickup truck, Passport SUV, and the Honda Pilot SUV. Our associates faced a number of significant challenges launching the all-new Pilot because it involved the most manufacturing changes since the first-generation Pilot was launched 20 years ago, including a new platform, a new engine, and the all-new and more rugged Pilot TrailSport.

The key to our success was the early involvement of Alabama associates working closely with the Ohio-based Honda R&D team even before the design of the Pilot was finalized. We don’t know of any other automaker that allows, and encourages, production associates to have such a strong voice in new vehicle design.

One big change we made is the way we build the front end of the vehicle. Traditionally, the vehicle comes to the assembly line with the front of the body structure and bumper already attached, requiring associates to reach over the top of the front end to install key components. The new process we adopted in Alabama enables associates to step into the front of the vehicle to install components. We then attach the front end module to the vehicle after associates complete their processes, a major improvement in ergonomics for associates, while promoting higher quality and efficiency.

Our team really attacked the issues that created the highest ergo concerns. As a result, Pilot is the most ergo friendly model we have ever had in Alabama.

Now, our associates are in the early stages of preparing for our next model, an all-new Honda Passport. It’s too early to share details, except for this – even as we work to make the next generation Passport even more rugged and appealing to our customers, our associates are also involved in making it easier to build.

Investing in Our Future
Honda has begun preparing for our electrified future, starting with the production of EVs next year at our EV Hub in Ohio. But our Alabama Auto Plant continues to have a unique and critical role to play, because even as Honda accelerates preparation for EV production, we plan to sustain current vehicle production in order to meet anticipated strong customer demand through 2030 and beyond. The sustained success of the vehicles we make also will support the required investment in the electrified future.

By that, I mean we will continue to invest not only in new technology, but in our people, listening to their ideas and working together to create products of the highest quality for our customers and unprecedented job security for our associates and their families. That is The Honda Way.

Lamar Whitaker
Vice President and Plant Lead, Honda Alabama Auto Plant

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