Driving Ideas Forward at Nissan

By Jessica Marquez

Jul. 24, 2006

Steve Mejia really thought it could work. At a meeting in late 2004, Mejia, senior manager of information systems at Nissan Motor, and his staff started discussing how much money the company could save if some of the automaker’s employees could work from home.

    The technology was advanced enough and it could particularly help employees who spent much of their time traveling.

    At companies as big as Nissan, which has 183,000 employees worldwide, such ideas can easily fall through the cracks. But Nissan president and CEO Carlos Ghosn made sure that wouldn’t happen.

    In the increasingly competitive automobile industry, companies are trying to stay ahead of the competition by speeding the innovation cycle. This requires a workforce model that lets ideas make their way through the organization quickly, says Arthur Wheaton, workplace and industry education specialist at Cornell University.

    “This means companies need to remove layers of management and make sure that good ideas are being heard and coming to fruition,” Wheaton says.

    Ghosn made this his top priority when he took over as chairman of Nissan’s U.S. management committee in 2004. In Japan, Nissan’s cross-functional teams were key in making sure that the company continued to come up with new ways to solve problems quickly and do things efficiently. Ghosn wanted that to happen in the U.S.

    Nissan established 16 teams, each with eight to 15 salaried employees from various departments. The idea was to focus on specific issues, such as quality, diversity or supply-chain management. Teams meet weekly or biweekly and often break into subgroups to address the problems and issues they identify.

    The participants, who serve on a team for no more than two years, are selected by managers or human resources staff as being high performers. They’re employees who have demonstrated that they can embrace and enforce new ideas, says Tricia Springer, sales operation manager for the South Central region, who helped oversee the creation of the teams.

    “The cross-functional teams are in place to challenge the organization and propose stretch initiatives and opportunities for us to be more creative and innovative,” she says.

    Mejia, for instance, took his idea for the virtual office to colleagues on his cross-functional team. The team designated a subgroup of employees from human resources, finance, information systems, sales, operations and facilities to come up with a proposal on the telecommuting concept. The group presented the idea to Ghosn in April 2005.

    He liked it. With Ghosn’s approval, Mejia and his team conducted a four-month pilot with 41 employees. The pilot found that in addition to reducing operations costs and improving morale, participants’ productivity increased by 23 percent.

    Nissan is implementing the virtual office initiative as it relocates its headquarters from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee, this summer. The company’s 14 trend spotters, who analyze market trends and identify concepts for Nissan, will work from home in Los Angeles.

    Nissan’s ability to allow ideas like the virtual office initiative to come to fruition demonstrates how the company understands the necessity to change constantly, analysts say.

    “We see this as key to staying ahead of our competitors,” Springer says.

Workforce Management, July 17, 2006, p. 28Subscribe Now!

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