Ford proves to itself that it can hurry up

The Maverick teams were brought together in a single room and worked in six- to eight-week “sprints” to help speed the vehicle’s development.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a special section on the accelerating pace of automotive development, engineering, innovation and manufacturing to be published on Monday, Aug. 2.

DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. slashed an eye-opening 20 months off the product development time of the 2022 Maverick compact pickup not because it could — but because it had to.

An aging lineup and a bureaucratic corporate hierarchy had weakened what former CEO Jim Hackett called Ford’s “competitive fitness.” Almost immediately after becoming CEO in May 2017, Hackett promised faster decision-making, new ways of working focused on what he coined “human-centered design” and a reduction in the number of vehicle architectures to a flexible few, which would cut engineering costs and improve speed to market.

Designers and engineers got their first chance to turn Hackett’s press release promises into reality when Ford in 2018 announced a plan to drop all sedans in North America. Suddenly, there was room in its lineup for an affordable vehicle — but to fill the space and avoid losing entry-level customers, the project would need to move quickly.

But more importantly, more quickly than normal.

An automaker known to favor acronyms, Ford decided to set a WAG — a “wildly audacious goal” — of cutting 25 months out of its typical product development time to create a “white space” product that came to be the Maverick.

Ultimately, it fell five months short of that goal, but the team brought the Maverick to market in about three years by piggybacking off a familiar vehicle platform and completely altering work streams, even doing away with traditional, anxiety-inducing senior leadership review presentations.

“We just did everything very differently than we traditionally would,” Jim Baumbick, Ford’s vice president of enterprise product line management, strategy and planning, told Automotive News. “You couldn’t increment your way there.”

The Maverick went from a blank sheet on a designer’s sketch pad to a fully funded program in 12 weeks — a process that normally takes 12 months. Ford also cut 15 weeks out of the final design milestone, which was completed at the fastest rate in its 118-year history.

“We were able to take time out of just about everything,” Baumbick said.

To start, Ford located the entire Maverick team — from design and engineering to marketing and sales — in one large room in the basement of its Dearborn, Mich., Product Development Center. Design sketches, data and product development metrics covered the walls.

Baumbick designed what he called “sprints,” roughly six- to eight-week chunks of work time to develop and try out new ideas. The thinking was that if the teams worked in shorter bursts, as opposed to monthslong stretches marked by formal management reviews, they would be empowered to try more ideas since it would be easier to recover if those ideas fell through.

“If it really went bad, or wasn’t effective, you didn’t put the whole project at risk,” Baumbick said. “That’s where the ideas really started to roll.”

Some of those ideas revolved around the vehicle’s 54-inch bed, which engineering specialist Keith Daugherty called a “DIY fan’s paradise.”

The team had found, through customer research, that many truck owners create their own hacks for storing items in the bed. They played around with cheap materials, such as cardboard and plastic foam, to quickly design features and see what would work and what wouldn’t.

The end product comes with slots stamped into the side of the bed that can fit 2×6 or 2×4 lumber, which gives owners the option to divide the storage areas or create bike racks.

Product development projects are often shaped by a series of formal senior management reviews, where underlings stand in front of their superiors to discuss where the program is and convince them to sign off on next steps.

“You’re the gladiator in the Colosseum,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer. “You’re sitting in this oak-paneled conference room, and everybody else in the room is company officers and vice presidents, assessing your readiness. It’s pretty intimidating.”

Thai-Tang has been on both sides of that process, presenting as the chief engineer of the 2005 Mustang and now sitting among the top bosses.

But he didn’t have to watch any Maverick leaders sweat through a presentation.

That’s because the company chose to eliminate those meetings and replace them with informal walkarounds in the product development room for two hours every Friday.

“The status of the most critical metrics were put on the wall,” Baumbick said. “If somebody wanted a status review, they’d just go to the wall. There was no big song and dance — papers, PowerPoints, all that. It was, ‘Let’s problem-solve in the room.’ ”

Thai-Tang said the process was more relaxed.

“We were standing around the boards and just talking,” Thai-Tang said. “The program teams are the experts. Management’s there to help serve the team, be a coach, adviser or help remove roadblocks.”

While the Maverick was a new vehicle in a new segment for Ford, the team could still borrow heavily from existing vehicles.

The compact pickup sits on the same unibody front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive C2 platform that underpins the Bronco Sport, Escape and Lincoln Corsair crossovers in the U.S. as well as the Focus in Europe. The vehicles share common parts such as engines, wiring harnesses, blower motors, seats and switches.

“When you’re developing an architecture, the first vehicle out of the gate is always the hardest, has the longest time duration and usually the highest spending,” Baumbick said. “But if you do it thoughtfully, where you’re thinking about a wide range of products and minimizing the number of systems and modules, then top hats two, three and four become this huge payback in both speed and spending,” he said, referring to models built off a proven platform.

That means there could be programs in the future that come to market even more quickly than the Maverick.

Ford plans additional vehicles on the C2 platform, including a small van built at the same plant in Mexico where it now builds preproduction Maverick models and the Bronco Sport.

The automaker has said it will bring 10 or 11 nameplates to market globally on the C2 platform, representing a volume of 2 million vehicles.

“We have more coming,” Baumbick said. “We’ve already been able to replicate this on another top hat, even beating our speed to market with Maverick in the early phases.

“It’s paying back multiple times over.”

Read More: Auto News