Doubtless somewhat shocked and surprised about GM Chairman/CEO/Non-Car-Guy Ed Whitacre’s decision to take over product planning responsibilities, Automotive News [sub] did some digging into the decision, and offers a full report. According to AN’s GM sources, the decision comes down to one fundamental goal: holding lower-tier executives accountable for decision making. By reducing executive reviews of forthcoming vehicles by one third, or about four times per development cycle, lower-level executives and engineers will have more freedom to make decisions, and will spend more time developing and less time preparing data for executive reviews. And lest you think this decision doesn’t merit your attention, consider this: though GM’s bureaucracy had created incredibly long lead times, most automakers hold about ten executive reviews per new product. By cutting to four, GM is taking something of a step into the unknown.
They’re trusting the troops below to do the right thing and check in less often
So says former mid- and full-size sedan (currently compact car) supremo Jim Federico, who is clearly a poster boy for this reform. Having spent years in Opel’s headquarters developing the Epsilon II chassis and its various applications, Federico has the kind of hands-on development experience that the new reform seeks to leverage. But, as examples from the Chrysler Airflow to the VW Phaeton prove, simply giving engineers free reign doesn’t always yield vehicles that sell well. And with executives in charge of GM’s business plan checking in on new vehicles less often, how are the newly-empowered engineers and development leads supposed to check their work against the market?
The answer, in a nutshell: Market Research. Having binged on market research-driven development during the Zarella era, GM had moved away from relying on focus groups and survey results under the leadership of Bob Lutz. Lutz was notoriously dismissive of market research, for the simple reason that Lutz knew a good car when he saw one. And if you’re never wrong, who needs to listen to the consumers? Besides, the Lutz school of thought was that a designer’s instincts produced better cars than all the market research in the world. As AN [sub] details, all that is changing now that Lutz is gone.
The now-retired vice chairman brought product planning, which includes market research, under the purview of product development.
In contrast, Whitacre has added new-product planning head Steve Carlisle to his list of direct reports, which raises questions about the role of research in product decisions.
In short, Whitacre trusts GM’s engineers to execute new products more than he trusts GM’s designers to dream up the cars that the market doesn’t know it wants yet. Whitacre will arm himself with a steady flow of market research and guide planning from a distance, instead of getting personally involved in the technical aspects of development the way Lutz would. The major worry here: GM’s cars were undeniably improved by Lutz’s hands-on approach, which was itself a reaction to the intensely mediocre products created by Zarella’s market research-driven development process. With a non-car guy calling the planning shots based on the latest focus group numbers, GM runs the risk of devolving into Malibu Maxx-era dissipation. On the other hand, engineers like Federico have experienced the successes (and failures) of the Lutz Way, and are, in theory, acting like hundreds of mini-Lutzes, obsessing over the details and execution of every new product.
Lutz’s influence on GM’s recent products helped set the stage for a reborn General Motors, but one generation of vehicles can’t undo decades of decline. GM’s new product development approach will have to build relentlessly on recent improvements if it wants its consumer reputation to eventually match the quality of its products.