Realize that McNealy grew up in suburban Detroit, as his father had been a vice chairman at American Motors. McNealy was no stranger to the car business.
What he said was that “a car is just a browser with tires.”
This was long before every auto executive in Detroit was rocking the jeans, sport coat and no-tie look, long before they were placing billion-dollar bets on things like deep learning and machine intelligence. So it was as though this guy was coming to town to say that he and his colleagues in Silicon Valley had it all figured out and that Detroit had better realize that digital devices were going to rule the roads.
Turns out that McNealy was more than slightly prophetic. Seems like not all people from the Valley who make incendiary comments are equally capable.
A few years before McNealy came to Detroit, I happened to be visiting Sun in Santa Clara County, meeting with its manufacturing people. Sun execs and engineers had decided that the way it was producing its workstations was inefficient and that they were going to switch over to a process that was being embraced by vehicle manufacturers — well, actually embraced by Toyota in the mid-’90s and rhetorically embraced by many of the rest: lean production.
That is, rather than making a whole bunch of individual parts and then eventually putting them together into an end product, the approach was one-piece flow: you essentially do complete follow-through of the product-in-becoming rather than having all manner of inventory.
The excitement at Sun was almost palpable as they were making the transition to lean. If you visited the Toyota Georgetown plant at the same time, the people there would have been more excited about some new entrée in the cafeteria. Lean was just how it was done.
Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way, to Elon Musk, who tweeted in response to a woman who tweeted out a picture of cars waiting in a rail yard wondering why she kept getting notifications about delayed delivery of her Tesla: “Sorry, we’ve gone from production hell to delivery logistics hell …”
Which is nothing short of inexplicable.
Although Musk could be cut some slack regarding the challenges of vehicle manufacturing (although less slack than he would deserve did he not make proclamations about the inefficiencies that he imagines exist in all contemporary car plants), it is surprising that there is any issue regarding logistics.
What lean is to car manufacturing, logistics is to companies like Amazon. Amazon has become a trillion-dollar company because of its superb efficiency in getting objects from point A to B in a seemingly seamless manner, even for those who aren’t Prime members.
Undoubtedly there are cadres of people at Stanford and Berkeley who are writing algorithms for the most efficient methods of shipping products.
Although in the century of transporting cars from factories to marshaling yards to dealerships things have become increasingly efficient, arguably the Toyota of transport is Amazon.
How is it that Musk hasn’t given Jeff Bezos a call to find out how they do it?