Task forces in the automotive industry: Why they are the solution to every problem – and why not

Munich, March 2024

Task forces in the automotive industry

Munich, March 2024

S

ometimes, the automotive industry tends to use military terminology. Understandably, this is typically the case when the stakes are high and time is running out. Task forces are a prime example of this phenomenon.

Usually, they are formed when there is a risk of a production shutdown with high follow-up costs or when development and industrialization projects fail to reach their milestones. Mechanisms are then set in motion that are common practice and pathbreaking to achieve the desired results. How do these mechanisms work? Where in the company can they still be deployed with success and what are their restrictions? And why are they unavoidable, despite every effort?

A task force is formed when a specific problem needs to be resolved within a very short time and a great deal of money is at stake. On the one hand, there are requirements and performance indicators regarding deadlines, costs, and quality to be considered and, on the other hand, a team of experts that has been put together on a temporary basis. The attentive reader might possibly recognize that this description comes very close to the definition of a “project.”

HOWEVER, THERE ARE SEVERAL SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES TO A NORMAL PROJECT:

Basically, it’s already too late for the solution
A lot of time and money has already been squandered. Preventive measures have failed, and the effort is mainly about damage limitation. The goal seems unattainable – and yet it must be pursued by all means

Every day costs money
When it comes to delivery bottlenecks, for example, every minute of lost time can be measured directly in lost profitability per component and ultimately per vehicle. The pressure on the people involved can become unbearable.

The problem is incredibly complex
Open heart surgery is required. Every change to the strained system can cause effects that need to be considered in advance and no single process can simply be changed separately. Every measure needs to be scrutinized in terms of success, failure, and unintended side effects. Often a few simple, clearly communicated, aligned (de-escalation) targets are needed to help resolve the situation.

A task force has a prior history of escalation
The nerves of those involved are frayed, several attempts have already been made to solve the problem, personal careers are at stake, and trust has been undermined. On the one hand, a speedy and structured problem-solving is often hampered by the personal and political tactics employed by those involved, while on the other hand, the process tends to be fraught with nervousness and hectic activities. Calm, fact-based communication and effective leadership are often simply disregarded.

The markets are unforgiving
A delayed product launch goes hand in hand with the scheduling of new model series and always involves a considerable loss of profit and reputational damage. As a result, sales, controlling, and marketing teams understandably have limited patience for those in development, production, and the supply chain who are constantly striving to catch up on milestones and performance indicators. The pressure, therefore, is sizzling, demanding tangible signs of progress each day. These factors alone are a clear indication that a task force needs to operate with a variety of specific project management tools.

Task forces are like agile project management on steroids
The timing is very tight. The daily schedule starts in the early morning for the team with the daily check-in and ends with the daily check-out. In between, the agreed measures need to be rigorously implemented – independently and without lengthy committee meetings. Success, therefore, greatly depends on nominating the right team members. The right experts need to be integrated and the team spirit must be sound, regardless of the organization and job title, whether OEM, supplier, or consultant. In the end, the integrated efforts of those involved make all the difference.

Discipline and a keen focus on suction are basic requirements
It sounds so simple but is unfortunately not always given that scheduled agreements are adhered to. Unforeseen obstacles must be communicated and resolved immediately as they arise and not only when someone fails to provide the agreed result.

The structure of a task force covers the entire range of solutions and usually consists of several work packages. When setting up the work packages, it is important not only to address the obvious topics (e.g. “OEE increase”), but also to work on the underlying causes (e.g. “strategic resource management”). When forming the team, it should be borne in mind that everyone involved must actively collaborate and be aligned with the overarching goal as defined and guided by the higher management. It is key to manage interdependencies between work packages within the Task Force Team on a regular basis and with mutual support. This combination is the only way to solve acute problems and at the same time create a robust system.

Each measure must have verifiable objectives
In addition to precisely documenting each defined measure, it goes without saying that feedback on completion is provided at the agreed due date. Another decisive factor for ensuring success is the prior linking of the measures with the expected impact on a targeted key performance indicator. This requires some effort and practice but leads to two elementary effects: a) A measure without a defined outcome will simply not be implemented, as it would be wasteful. b) A measure with a defined outcome is then not only reviewed regarding implementation, but also for the fulfillment of the expected outcome.

Task forces align with and follow higher management
There is no time for committee meetings and long decision-making processes. In a task force, serious decisions sometimes need to be made several times a day. Depending on the size of the company, the uppermost hierarchical levels need to be either directly involved on a daily basis or at least accessible. If they are not directly involved, decisions must be prepared precisely with the necessary information and clearly communicated. The required effort should not be underestimated and must be prepared in parallel to the technical work. However, the power of facts is there to override political controversies.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are critical success factors
This point may sound surprising, given that task force situations are connected to a military style of communication. Ultimately, the personalities involved need to be understood and positively motivated. This requires an excellent understanding of the respective situation and motives for action by the task force leadership and the consultants involved.

However, a sustainable improvement of the situation can only be achieved if people act intrinsically different afterwards, a fact that also highlights the limitations of task forces in general, as they only work effectively within a clearly defined timeline and organizational framework. The preceding paragraphs clearly illustrate the significant pressure on the people involved, leading to long-term sustainability concerns. The usual organizational and operational structures are also temporarily insignificant. Sooner or later, the situation must be transitioned back to a robust and efficient disciplinary line management system.

For this reason, every good task force needs to prepare its own end from scratch
Criteria for de-escalation must be clearly and transparently defined. Embedded in an overarching schedule, they must be regularly communicated and not subject to change. Once the targets have been achieved, the task force is no longer required. The criteria therefore need to be defined so that a return to normal working mode within robust processes is subsequently possible. The combination of deliberately defined work packages and criteria for their de-escalation therefore determines the subsequent sustainability of the success right from the start.

What happens next?

We at Berylls have spent decades honing our expertise in mastering task forces within the operations environment. The focus in terms of content has increasingly shifted towards e-mobility components but is not limited to this field alone. The task force life cycle we have developed as a result is a unique approach that incorporates all the success factors mentioned above:

Figure 1: The Berylls task force life cycle

Authors
Heiko Weber

Partner

Fritz Metzger

Partner

Christina Granitz

Project Manager

Source: Berylls

Pronounced for us was the successful transfer of experience from more than 100 successful de-escalated task force projects to enable early escalation preventive programs in future development and production planning. This is where our tried and tested Safe Launch System Certificate comes into play, which certifies that suppliers and OEMs have their development, industrialization and launch management processes under control.

But we wouldn’t be “but dyfferent” if we didn’t go one step further with our clients. When it comes to monitoring and controlling a task force, we offer our tool called “elyvate”. Our colleague Christian Kaiser has already described the additional use of IT tools and artificial intelligence for efficient support here.

In our following articles, we will also look at how task forces can lead to success, even in a well-oiled marketing machine or a dynamic sales environment. The instruments simply need to be adapted to the respective circumstances. Nevertheless, based on our experience, we strongly advise our clients to have a standardized task force approach as well as management mechanism for early problem identification at hand so that it can be swiftly utilized as and when needed.

Fritz Metzger

Fritz Metzger (1986) joined Berylls Strategy Advisors, an international strategy consultancy specializing in the automotive industry, in February 2021. He is an expert on automotive operations.

Since 2011, his focus has been on strategic alignment and operational efficiency improvement of automotive manufacturers and suppliers. He also advises top management in critical situations, including R&D and industrialization task forces and relocation and restructuring initiatives of plants and complete suppliers. The challenges of e-mobility are always in focus.

Before joining Berylls, he was a director at international strategy consultants PwC Strategy&, as well as a sales and project manager at a medium-sized supplier and mechanical engineering company.

Fritz Metzger is a trained industrial engineer with a degree from ESB Business School Reutlingen. He also holds an MBA from the University of Salzburg.

Heiko Weber

Heiko Weber (1972), Partner at Berylls Strategy Advisors, is an automotive expert in operations.

He started his career at the former DaimlerChrysler AG, where he worked for seven years and was most recently responsible for quality assurance and production of an engine line. Since moving to Management Engineers in 2006, he has been contributing his experience and expertise to projects for automotive manufacturers as well as suppliers in development, purchasing, production and supply chain. Heiko Weber has extensive experience in the development of functional strategies in these areas and also possesses the operational management expertise to promptly catch critical situations in the supply chain through task force operations or to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

As a partner of Management Engineers, he accompanied the firm’s integration first into Booz & Co. and later into PwC Strategy&, where he was most recently responsible for the European automotive business until 2020.

Weber holds a degree in industrial engineering from the Technical University of Berlin and completed semesters abroad at Dublin City University in Marketing and Languages.