By Ted Bowen
February 21, 2013
While working in the quintessential assembly line business, SDM ’13 Brian Hendrix avoided becoming overspecialized. In his dozen years at Ford Motor Company, he had assignments in product design, research and development, manufacturing, and quality control. This broad range of experience gives Hendrix, who was trained as a chemical engineer, the versatility to address the needs and opportunities of a Big Three automaker that is in the midst of another reinvention.
Now several years into a major transformation, Ford is recasting its product and marketing strategies, consolidating platform and vehicle designs, and promoting a less hierarchical, more accountable management culture, one that is receptive to new technologies and better attuned to customer demand. And while the company is not immune from product issues, its new approach encourages business units to address problems more openly and earlier in the development cycle.
This dovetails with expertise Hendrix gained in quality control, including the Six Sigma system developed at Motorola in the 1980s that aims to raise quality by identifying defects and their likely causes. Hendrix has trained Ford employees in Six Sigma and productivity analysis and was responsible for adding quality control, benchmarking and testing to the design and manufacturing of power train products.
After earning a bachelors degree in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, Hendrix became the third generation in his family to work for Ford when he joined the company as a paint supervisor. After several years and numerous productivity improvements, he moved into power train operations, where his analysis of the resources that went into transmission production resulted in over a million dollars in savings. He went on to oversee engineering projects and train managers, engineers, and autoworkers in Six Sigma methodologies.
Hendrix then rotated to planning the integration of tools in the manufacturing process for Ford’s Livonia, Michigan transmission plant. In 2006, he shifted to focus on quality engineering, devising benchmarks for senior managers to track product failures and developing guidelines to improve the soundness of air induction systems.
Shifting to product design, he tapped into the more creative side of engineering. While developing high-pressure ducts for the Ford Mondeo line in Europe and Asia, he designed an engine noise suppressor, or resonator. Ford applied for patents based on his design and the resonator is now in production as an option on some vehicles.
This experience led Hendrix to rethink his advanced training. Rather than follow the auto executive’s traditional MBA route, he preferred the creativity and rigor of an engineering focus. The integrated technology and management approach of MIT’s System Design and Management program, with its emphasis on systems thinking, suited his plans.
"At high levels of leadership, systems thinking becomes even more critical due to the complex, open-ended problems you encounter," he said. "I want to develop more into the type of manager who looks at an array of requirements and makes the right decision based on that array."
Decisions informed by a dual emphasis on technology and management can steer automakers away from choices that favor short-term profits over quality, according to Hendrix. And, in the case of Ford, because the company increasingly looks to develop future generations of vehicles internally rather than via acquisition, there is a greater need to integrate engineering, design, and business strategies.
Systems thinking can help companies address the various factors influencing the design and development of vehicles, whether government regulations, customer demand, or the physics of the environment, according to Hendrix.
He is currently a lead product development engineer for air induction systems and turbo ducts for Ford trucks. Post-SDM, Hendrix intends to continue with his passion in a role in the auto industry.