Marysville, Ohio — The chief challenge to Honda Motor Company's year-old plant in the rich farmlands of central Ohio is to turn out a car that is indistinguishable from the ones it makes in Japan.
''All Accords (the brand Honda makes both in Japan and at Marysville) sold west of the Mississippi are made in Japan,'' said Shige Yoshida, vice-president and plant manager of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. ''All Accords east of the river will be made here when we reach full production next summer. Accords made here must be entirely interchangeable with Accords made in Japan.''
Or, as tousle-haired Ed Carpenter, one of the plant's production coordinators , puts it, ''If there are two Hondas on a dealer's lot, one made in Japan, the other made here, that dealer has already established that he can sell the Japanese-made Honda. But with the American-made Honda, he'll be looking for a flaw. So will the customer.''
It will be up to the Marysville plant's local employees - all hired from within a 30-mile radius of the factory - to make sure that neither the dealer nor the customer finds any difference.
''We tell that to all our production associates,'' Mr. Carpenter said.
The first US-made Honda Accord came off Marysville's gleaming assembly line last Nov. 1.Since then, production has been gradually stepped up to about 300 cars a month. The full rate of 600 cars a month is to be reached next summer.
''We are going slowly to make sure that we make no mistakes,'' said Mr. Yoshida. So far, the quality of cars produced has indeed matched that of those made in Japan, and morale among the workers, most of whom had never worked in a car plant before, seems excellent.
Mr. Carpenter's case is perhaps typical. He grew up in Bellefontaine, county seat of Logan County, about a 20-minute drive from the Honda plant.
It is a pretty town, with well-tended lawns and gracious front porches, on one of which a porch sale was going on the day this correspondent passed by. ''We're glad about the new Honda plant,'' said one of the women tending the sale. ''A number of firms have been closing down around here, and this helps employment.''
Carpenter was helping his father run his appliance dealership when he found out that Honda was opening a motorcycle plant, to be followed by a car plant. This was in May of 1979 and, prodded by his wife, he decided to apply. Two months later, the company responded, and after a series of three interviews, the final one being with Mr. Yoshida, he was hired. He had never worked in a factory before.
Company officials said one of Honda's reasons for selecting this part of Ohio for its factory was to get a fairly homogeneous work force with no previous experience of assembly line work.
Honda bought a 864-acre site in Marysville, Union County, on which it built a 23-acre plant. It recruited from both Union County and neighboring Logan County, an area of rolling farmland and relatively little industry.
''We call our workers production associates,'' Yoshida said. ''We hired them, first to work on motorcycles, and then on cars. We train our associates ourselves because we want them to have maximum flexibility - to work as a team and to be able to do different kinds of work.''
He said the way to avoid defects is for each person on the assembly line to make sure he passes on a defect-free product to the next person. ''We refuse to take the approach that, in a given number of cars, some are bound to be defective. To each of our customers, the Honda he bought is the only Honda he knows. And with cars and motorcycles, defects may affect people's lives. We don't lecture, but we take three minutes every morning to talk over any problems that may have arisen the day before. Each associate, of course, is free to say whatever he wants to at that time.''
Carpenter said he had been sent to Japan for training three times. The first time, in the spring of 1980, was for three weeks. He and his fellow trainees were at Honda's motorcycle plant at Sayama, outside Tokyo. The Japanese instructors and co-workers were solicitous, but the food was strange to him and Carpenter said he had the feeling someone was looking over his shoulder all the time. The second time, the following year, went much better. The trainees themselves were more used to their surroundings and the instructors did not worry as much over what might possibly go wrong. Carpenter and his friends went into Tokyo on weekends - where, to these youths from the horizonless plains of the Middle West, ''the crowds were unbelievable.''
Finally, last year Carpenter was one of 20 who went for a two-month stay, to prepare to be key personnel for the auto plant. Since his return he has been promoted to production coordinator, with 61 people to watch over. His job is to set up production schedules, figuring out how many people it will take to do a particular job and how long he needs them.
Carpenter said the Japanese engineers at the plant ''understand more about the production of a car than I do. They teach us to think of all angles. It takes me a bit longer.''
He noted that the Honda system is to train workers to think as people and not to work mechanically as machines. ''If a person turns into a machine, he lets his hands work but his head won't be there, and he may leave a part off.''
Four workers who tend boilers are members of the United Automobile Workers. The boiler section is a self-contained part of the plant and workers there require special state licenses. But in the plant as a whole, Carpenter said, he has not heard many people demanding a union. He said those who do usually have a particular grievance: They may dislike the idea of job rotation, or feel that, having been hired before so-and-so, they should have been given first crack at a job that was later given to so-and-so. He said day-to-day personal relations are excellent.
Honda executives said they would live with a union if they had to, but would prefer not to if possible. There is a strong feeling on their part that the unions would bring a confrontational atmosphere into the plant. The wages Honda pays are satisfactory compared with those of other industries, but they are obviously lower than those enjoyed by unionized workers in Detroit. Carpenter said he was hired at $6.12 an hour and is now receiving a little over $11 an hour.
At Honda, unlike a number of other Japanese plants in the United States, workers have accepted the need to wear white uniforms and white caps - a rule enforced in all Honda plants worldwide as a means of stressing cleanliness. To keep from inadvertently scratching a car's finish, leather belts and leather buckles are de rigueur, and jackets have no protruding buttons. The factory pays for laundering these work clothes.
''Why do I work here?'' said a white-capped youth about to take his lunch break with a number of companions on the lawn outside the motorcycle plant, which is separate from the car plant. ''Because I want to own an Aspencade myself some day.'' He gestured toward Honda's top-of-the-line motorcycle. ''Besides, it's a good job.''
Mr. Yoshida and his fellow Japanese executives and staff have settled down in Marysville and surrounding communities, send their children to local schools, and all in all are trying to be good citizens of the community.
''We could not ask for any finer or any fairer relationship than with Honda, '' says Mayor Tom Nuckles of Marysville.
But in all fairness, Honda Marysville is still in the early stages of its experiment in transnational, transcultural management. A final verdict will have to await the passage of time and the progress of mutual acclimatization.