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Car companies are fast learning that they need to change the way they do business. Call it being competitive, call it survival, call it job security, the bottom line is that for too many years automobile manufacturers in this country have been way too fat.

Many of them have taken new approaches to selling cars.Every day, more companies are adapting new approaches to the business of selling cars. Is that enough?

Management at Ford thinks not.

Ford feels that if it is to maintain its competitive position in the marketplace (Ford's Taurus has been the No. 1-selling car in America for the past three years), it must also address how it manufactures its vehicles.

To be price-competitive and provide a high-quality product, Ford feels the changes in procedures need to go deeper than the sales floor; they need to go all the way back to the assembly line.

With this in mind, when they set about developing the '96 Taurus, they decided to involve the assembly-line workers. The project was code-named DN101.

Ford selected 100 workers from the Hapeville, Ga., factory, where the Taurus is built, and sent them to Detroit. There was no obligation to participate.

To make the team required close to 25 years of service, which precluded the selection of any women. I found that ironic considering Ford's strong commitment to the female marketplace. But 25 years ago, women were not on the assembly line.

So what exactly did these DN101 team members contribute?

Basically, they supplied input that had come from engineers. The team's hands-on experience meant members had a good idea what parts and pieces actually work in the most efficient and quality-oriented assembly process. With their input, the factory was able to meet a goal of producing 68 units per hour.

The team members had the expertise to know when compromises needed to be made and the good sense to know when to stand firm. Ford management had the good sense to listen.