Study Guide

A Better Idea

by John Hillkirk, Donald E. Petersen

A Better Idea Analysis

A Better Idea (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ford Motor Company experienced a dramatic turnaround during the 1980’s, a decade in which Petersen served first as president and chief operating officer, then as chairman and CEO. A BETTER IDEA distills the lessons learned into a six-stage process, described in “The Transformation,” the first part of the book.

Part 2, “The New Philosophy,” puts the philosophy behind Ford’s transformation into more general terms, discussing leadership, respecting and empowering all of a company’s employees, and the changing nature of quality. “Pockets of Progress” deals with applying the principles to nonmanufacturing organizations (from service businesses to the U.S. military), and a brief final section focuses on Petersen’s concerns about Japan and American competitiveness.

Ford’s management acknowledged that their problems were too serious to be solved by incremental improvements: Major changes in operations were required, and quality had to become every employee’s goal. A number of specific techniques were employed—statistical process control, employee involvement, participative management, and worker empowerment—the thrust being to work together as a team, committed to continuous quality improvement. Despite Petersen’s assertion that this is not the Ford story, most of his real world examples are drawn from Ford experience (especially the chapters in the first two parts), and it is these “war stories” that give the book resonance. His personal belief in the philosophy is convincing, its effectiveness documented by concrete examples.

A BETTER IDEA loses its focus when it departs from ideas based on the Ford turnaround. Much of the last two parts is devoted to anecdotal examples of teamwork and quality in various nonmanufacturing settings, wrapped up with general cheerleading for the concepts and their importance to the future of the U.S. economy. One chapter is devoted to bare-knuckled Japan-bashing, a startling departure from Petersen’s generally moderate and self-effacing tone elsewhere.