Ford times time on the loo

This article from the Detroit news shows petty measures introduced by Ford managers recently to raise productivity. The memo about toilet time is included below.

- Ford cracks down on rest room breaks
- Some workers spend more than 48 minutes away from the line at Wayne truck plant, slowing production of SUVs.

By Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

Too long in the loo?
In a memo that was distributed Tuesday to workers at Ford's Michigan Truck plant in Wayne, plant managers said too many of the factory's 3,500 hourly workers are spending more than the 48 minutes allotted per shift to use the bathroom -- so the company is putting a lid on the practice.

You know things are tense at work when management starts timing rest room breaks. But beleaguered Ford Motor Co. is doing just that.

In a memo that was distributed Tuesday to workers at Ford's Michigan Truck plant in Wayne, plant managers said too many of the factory's 3,500 hourly workers are spending more than the 48 minutes allotted per shift to use the bathroom. The extra-long breaks are slowing production of the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles that are built there, the company said.

"In today's competitive environment, it is important that Michigan Truck plant immediately address this concern to avoid the risks associated with safety, quality, delivery, cost and morale," the memo said.

The length of bathroom breaks may seem minor, but Ford's attention to it reflects the intense pressure on U.S. automakers and parts suppliers to improve factory performance and cut costs amid fierce competition from more-efficient foreign rivals.

Ford supervisors will begin collecting weekly data on the amount of time workers spend on bathroom breaks and "respond appropriately," the memo said.

Several workers are crying foul. They say the real issue is that sales of the Expedition and Navigator have been plummeting for much of the year as high gasoline prices prompt consumers to switch to more fuel-efficient models.

When times get tough, some managers at Michigan Truck get "petty," said Jody Caruana, a Michigan Truck hourly worker and a committee member for United Auto Workers Local 900, which represents workers at the plant.

"It's an excuse by upper management to gloss over some of the real problems we have out here," Caruana said. "This might be an issue in one zone or another. But is this causing a quality or productivity problem? No. If someone is not on the job, you can bet someone else is who knows what they are doing."

Ford is struggling to turn around its ailing North American auto business amid growing financial losses and declining U.S. market share. Ford lost $284 million in the third quarter, a drop of $550 million from the same period last year.

In North America, Ford's auto business posted a pre-tax third-quarter loss of $1.2 billion. The automaker plans significant plant closures and other cost-cutting moves as part of its recovery. Industry analysts say 20,000 or more blue-collar jobs are likely to be cut.

But at least one analyst said automakers are beginning to take cost-saving ideas too far.

Bathroom monitoring is just one of a number of "incredibly stupid ideas" being floated by automakers, said Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates, a manufacturing consulting firm in Troy. Munro said a number of suppliers have told him that Ford and General Motors Corp., which is also trying to battle back from deep losses, are beginning to explore small ways to save money.

"It's a giant throwback to the bad old days of the '70s and '80s, when you squeezed the guy at the bottom of the heap any way you could," Munro said. "That only causes lots of discontent, and only someone from Harvard could think of something as stupid as monitoring bathroom time."

Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari said the 48-minute bathroom break limit is spelled out in the UAW contract that covers local plant rules.

"We are managing our business according to the local agreement," Gattari said.

Greg Gardner of Harbour Consulting Inc., a manufacturing and management consulting firm in Troy that tracks productivity in auto plants, isn't aware of any other Michigan auto factory monitoring the time hourly workers spend on bathroom breaks.

But relations between management and workers "can often get strained" when sales are slow, downtime appears imminent and possible job losses loom, he said.

Many autoworkers, including those at Michigan Truck, are working under such conditions.

"(Managers) always go after the small stuff when times get tough, because they don't have control over the big stuff, either," said Ken Pool, an hourly worker at Michigan Truck.

Workers point out they have had 12 weeks of downtime due to slow sales this year, and more may be on the horizon.

The memo ends on an upbeat note: "We look forward to putting this concern behind us as we obtain your personal commitment in supporting our joint focus on embracing change."

View the memo