By on September 20, 2011

Ed’s outstanding editorial largely disproved ten widely believed myths about Bob Lutz based on their candid interview. But my favorite Lutz myth apparently didn’t pop up in their wide-ranging discussion: that Lutz believes in designing cars from the gut, and opposes testing potential designs with representative car buyers in clinics.

You’ll often read that boring, even bad designs are the way they are because of clinics. Clinics have been blamed for the Edsel, the Aztek, and myriad other car design failures over the past half-century. Touted as the superior alternative: the golden gut, with Lutz as poster boy. The reality from Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: the Battle for the Soul of American Business: he has found clinics to be an excellent indicator of a design’s future potential and firmly believes in their use.

This wasn’t news to me. Lutz’s 1998 book, Guts, includes as the first of its seven “immutable laws of business” that “the customer isn’t always right.” To whit, survey results are often misleading and, at a minimum, require careful interpretation. Lutz enthusiastically notes about the Viper, “We didn’t do any research at all—we just did it!” But not long after that book was published I interviewed Chrysler’s head of market research as part of the work for my Ph.D. thesis. He told a different story. While Lutz is most famous for the Viper, his most profitable successes while at Chrysler were the far more practical, far less flashy minivans and Jeep Grand Cherokee. These vehicles were based on extensive research. Even with Lutz heavily involved, the Viper was the exception, not the rule. (See Ed’s Myth #4, where Lutz claimed to get equally excited about both sorts of products.)

When Lutz took charge of GM’s new product development in 2001 I was still in touch with people inside GM’s design analysis and market research groups. They were fearful that Lutz would cut them way back or even shut them down entirely, based on his popular reputation. I told them they had nothing to worry about as long as GM got the actual Lutz and not the one that occupied the popular imagination. Lutz was against the mechanical use of market research and other data, but firmly believed in clinics as a tool to inform decision-makers’ judgment.

Which brings us to Car Guys. Before rejoining GM as a senior executive, Lutz had assumed that poorly conducted research must be to blame for the unattractive styling of many GM cars. But this wasn’t what he actually found. As he recounts, “To my surprise, I found GM’s research methodology to be excellent, much like that used to great success by Chrysler, and in some ways even superior.” The actual problem: “a general disdain for consumer input.” GM executives were disregarding clinic scores that were mediocre at best, and that were often awful. Vehicles like the Aztek were approved despite failing in clinics because revisions would require missing critical time and costs targets. The Vehicle Line Executives (VLEs) chose a probable future failure in the marketplace over a certain immediate failure to achieve their goals.
Rationalizations would come into play. In the case of the 2004 Cadillac SRX, the designers successfully argued that poor clinic results could be ignored because the general public couldn’t tell what they wanted in the future, that they lacked “reach.” As we now know, the first-generation SRX flopped. When the 2004 Grand Prix tested worse than the old design, the VLE reacted by telling the senior executive board that he wanted to take a baseball bat to the research group. Apparently the board bought this “argument,” as they approved the design despite the clinic results. The market then vindicated the clinic.

Lutz put an end to these practices. Designers’ passions and creativity are essential to creating beautiful cars, and Lutz did what he could to free them. But he also required that every design win its clinic by “a substantial margin” to get approved. Designs with merely decent (or worse) scores were revised, even if this or that gut suggested that the clinic results were wrong, and even if this made the project late and over budget. As is often the case, there isn’t a correct choice between “right brain” guts and “left brain” clinic scores. Successful cars follow from the proper combination of the two.

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31 Comments on “Bob Lutz Myth #11: Lutz Hates Car Design Clinics...”


  • avatar

    Research is a tool. It’s not gospel, yet it’s not useless. It’s a tool, like a chisel or a socket wrench, that in the right hands can help bring about a masterpiece.

    Guts and statistics must work hand-in-hand.

  • avatar
    Ashy Larry

    This is an excellent point about GM’s institutional arrogance and bureaucracy. They simply weren’t listening to their customers. They were listening only to their porject managers. There wasn’t enough instittuional courage within the organization to stop a project because the keye element of it — its marketability and attractiveness to those who are shelling out their hard-earned money for the product.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this in business — a drift away from working with your customers to fulfill their needs and in into believing you can just sell them whatever you want and they will buy it. You come to believe you can dictate the market as opposed to earn it. People stop listening and start marching to the beat of the project management drum, making a shiny new product because someone else thinks it is a great idea, and not having the sack to ask why.

    • 0 avatar

      GM might be arrogant, but the people I encountered weren’t this arrogant. They knew that the product wouldn’t do well. They just couldn’t see how to create a better one within the constraints of the GM organization and culture. This was a recipe for rampant frustration.

      As I’ve found with my business, working with even a few other people on a creative project (e.g. a site redesign) is very difficult. After a few iterations the average person just wants to “get it done.” With a much larger project, like a new car, the difficulties and pressure to “just get it done” goes up exponentially.

      The problem isn’t really one of arrogance and intelligence, but of leadership and management. The arrogance might just be a coping mechanism, with despair the alternative.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        The problem isn’t really one of arrogance and intelligence, but of leadership and management.

        They go hand-in-hand. Institutional arrogance creates barriers for problem solving, as there are no problems to solve in such a perfect organization. A culture that insular is bound to breed silence among those who know better, and haughty self-confidence among those who don’t.

  • avatar
    segfault

    I always wondered how the Aztek got past the focus groups. I just figured they concluded the styling was “polarizing” and played it up as a positive attribute.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      I’m not from the auto industry, but in the software industry I’ve seen this over and over and over again. People in focus groups saying they want X, Y and Z, and development goes and changes/adds/removes based on the focus group, and the product lands with a thud.

      Focus groups can give terrible information to product planners, sometimes information that can take you backwards. In the software industry a common mantra is, “the customer doesn’t really know what they want.”

      Intuitive and natural are big keys to success – just ask Apple.

  • avatar
    Signal11

    Well, to be fair, focus groups often get things completely wrong. Sometimes, when they’re wrong, they’re horrifically wrong.

    Can of worms here, but Apple is famous for eschewing focus groups.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Apple does use focus groups, but they don’t quite do it the same way, and they don’t put the process ahead of the product. They also don’t use them at the front and back of the development cycle only, nor do they only consider what the focus group says they want, they also watch what they actually do.

      People tend to treat focus groups as a CYA check, when what they really ought to be is part of the development process. If your focus group comes with with what, by the numbers, is a Pontiac Aztek, you damn well go back and re-test that. And then you test it again. You don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Oh well, it’s what the focus groups said they wanted, no blame attaches, let’s go for drinks.” as is what happened with the Aztek. The truth, there, is that they didn’t really use focus groups at all, not properly.

      Here’s an example: you put someone in a car with a audio and HVAC controls that are all the same size and you watch what they touch most often. Then, you resize the buttons by order of frequency of use. Then you do it again, except you shrink the stuff they don’t touch. Then again, and again, and again, tweaking each time for aesthetics. And you do this with different people from different backgrounds.

      Eventually, you get an optimal control layout.

      This is what, eg, minivans go through**, and it shows in how mercilessly well-executed they are. The Aztek was, obviously, never vetted by a focus group unless that group was stunningly badly selected.

      Designers, planners and executives often forget, ignore or misunderstand this process because they believe too strongly in their own vision, or they’re lazy and don’t want to go through the whole exercise, or some combination of both. Even Apple will do it sometimes, hence, eg, the G4 Cube***.

      ** or at least what the Oddy, Sienna and Caravan go through. Nissan, Ford and GM phoned it in.
      *** I own one, and it’s a nice machine, but it was waaaaay too expensive for what you got.

      • 0 avatar
        Signal11

        The G4 Cube is an awfully pretty kleenex dispenser. :)

        If you want to talk about bad/compromised design from “visionary” stubbornness, let’s talk about the one-button mouse. That dude HATES buttons.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        I totally get the one-button mouse. After a couple of years on the helpdesk, a few more managing it, and interminable years watching CxOs and senior managers right-click when they mean to left-click and vice versa, I totally see where they were coming from.

        Context-sensitive controls need to die.

      • 0 avatar
        fincar1

        Another nice thing about the one-button mouse: it lends itself to being operated with either hand, which is great for playing computer games…you can play left-handed part of the time, or on some games, and save on the muscles and nerves of your right hand.

      • 0 avatar
        stuart

        I heard a lecture by Bud Tribble, who claimed responsibility for the one-button mouse. For a moment, pretend it’s 1984. You’re in an office, there are a few IBM-PCs in use, and one brand-new 68K Macintosh. The Resident Mac Expert is showing you how to do something on the Mac. You’re looking over his/her shoulder. See the cursor? Move here, click, drag over there, blahblahblah.

        The reason for the one-button mouse is: you could see and follow such directions more easily if the mouse had only one button. If there were more buttons, you might use the “wrong button” at some point and confuse yourself, instantly labeling yourself a dummy and the Mac as unfriendly.

        FWIW, when I introduced somebody to the WWW twenty years ago, I had a three-button mouse on a Sun workstation, and she intuitively chose the right-hand button to open links. It worked, but it created a new window for each click. This is only an anecdote, but I think the multiple-button-confusion issue is real.

        The current Apple mouse has a touch surface, and supports multiple “buttons,” but the one-button mouse lives on in the iPhone/iPodTouch/iPad: all have a single “take me home” button. :-)

        stuart

  • avatar

    I think the key with focus groups is to not let them lead design, but rather use them to evaluate the work of your creative staff. I know from dealing with my embroidery customers is that people know what they like but they don’t necessarily know what they want. At the same time, the creative staff can’t just indulge their own tastes.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    This article smacks so much of managers “failing to see the big picture”. In my old company, they tried to get in the head of the plant general managers that if the mills were making money, the company was making money. The mills were the cash cow, but parochialism kept winning the day, for as everyone knows, if you are a general manager, no matter how much the “parent” makes, if you consistently fail to live up, you’ll be replaced. Catch-22 in so many cases.

    I’m certain that in auto design, after a while, people just get tired and regard a project that drags as a “dead horse” and just want to move on, hoping the customer will fall in love with what you’re putting out there.

  • avatar
    ajla

    When the 2004 Grand Prix tested worse than the old design…

    I’m not that surprised considering it looks like GM spent roughly 25 minutes coming up with the 7th Gen Grand Prix. I figured it was only tested with Hertz and Avis.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, as Lutz points out in his book GM had an uncanny ability to spend a tremendous amount of time discussing insignificant details, while failing to spend enough time on the things that would most impact what the car was like to look at and drive. Nothing, no matter how small, got done there in 25 minutes. Entire rooms of people would spend hours wordsmithing presentations.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        The untold story behind the 7th gen Grand Prix has always intrigued/infuriated me.

        I refuse to believe that anyone at GM drove a ’97 GT then drove a new ’04 GT and said “yep, we sure accomplished 7 years worth of advancement here.”

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Entire rooms of people would spend hours wordsmithing presentations.

        Sounds like lots of big companies.

        I make a very good living sitting in rooms full of people also making very good money wordsmithing PowerPoint decks.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “The problem isn’t really one of arrogance and intelligence, but of leadership and management. The arrogance might just be a coping mechanism, with despair the alternative.”

    And this is a problem that many many compaines struggle with. Hardly unique to GM.

  • avatar

    Lutz IS the MYTH morons. Suck an egg GM.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    “Just doing the Viper” was the least risky of any “we just did it” exercise. I’m not impressed. It was just Chrysler’s Corvette; no imagination needed, really. For such a low volume car, there’s always a market with the expendable-money crowd if it’s fast and nice looking, at least in the first few years. till the reputation catches up with it.

    The Aztek was much more of a risk, as it was intended to price and sell like a mainstream model. GM was too full of executive ass-kissers to halt a bad idea, or bad design. Even when the Azteks were in production, I thought it was nice to see an attempt at it, and not just another rounded, bar of soap, Japan-imitator.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      Lots of pixels and ink have been spent on the Aztek, but rarely from owners. It was packaged very well, and for my purposes was a good car for us. It functioned well for us as an active family.

      I’d thought frequently if the car would have come with a big H or the sleeping man in the sombrero logo folks would have proclaimed it genius.

      • 0 avatar
        geo

        I wonder as well, though I’m pretty sure it would have been hailed as an innovative marvel if it had come from a different continent. The styling would be cast as “controversial”, with the suggestion that if you didn’t like it, you were too unsophisticated to appreciate it.

      • 0 avatar
        Jurgen

        I’d have to disagree. Look at the discontinued Ridgeline. Another versatile and functional but ugly vehicle. Didn’t see too many high praise articles on it. Sometimes ugly is just ugly and people may buy innocuous, but they won’t buy ugly.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Jurgen: The problem with the Ridgeline was a lack of focus, IMO. The Aztek was plowing new ground to a degree. People looked at it in 2001 and asked “what is that?”.

        The Ridgeline looked like a truck, but didn’t really function as a truck in the idiom we’re used to in North America. It’s just that the competition already existed and there were other alternatives that could do the job just as well.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        As more and more time passes on the demise of the Aztek, I think history is looking at it with a kinder filter. The horrific exterior industrial design will never be forgiven, but it was a ground breaking vehicle, a lot of concepts, features, and ideas found its way into CUVs made from every continent.

        It is faint praise, sometimes being first sucks. Everything I’ve ever seen on loyalty stats has shown that Aztek owners as a group, love their Azteks. I would never own one – but I always felt the interior was well executed in design and a very long list of really good ideas, not in quality of material choice, but certainly a lot of innovative features.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-X

      When staring at the Aztek’s exterior, just at say a 4×4 foot section, I could see the theme of what they were trying to do. I liked it. The problem was none of the ‘sections’ fit together harmoniously. I hated it. (In the day, GM actually sent an internal memo to employees saying: “Stop calling it ugly!”) On the other hand, the interior was great, and it drove nice. Hell, the maximum cargo capacity was 93.5 cubic feet! And the $5000 rebate was a nice touch. If there was a microcosm of Old GM, the Aztek is it.

    • 0 avatar
      geo

      @Jurgen

      The Ridgeline was hailed by the mainstream press, most notably by the NYT, as a revolutionary vehicle . . . the sort that domestic automakers should be making but presumably had no idea how to. The reason it was able to sell 4000 or so copies per month was because of this praise. I remember the mainstream media drooling over it as a “new kind of truck”, smooth to drive, wonderfully executed and designed, with a brilliant trapdoor in the bed, and great gas mileage to boot. It was the mainstream truck buyers who rejected the vehicle.

      Can you imagine if a domestic company created a Ridgeline? Perhaps with some Caravan DNA? Nobody would touch it, and I can almost hear the scoffing of the NYTimes as they decry the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

  • avatar
    michal1980

    I’ve been reading since fargo. I rarely comment. But this whole lutz thing just stinks. A big check clear from his book or something?

    • 0 avatar
      mike978

      What do you mean by “A big check clear from his book or something?” – corruption?

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      I gotta agree, something smells fishy here. This is the website who tagged Lutz with the less than flattering kick-name “Maximum Bob” This is the website who loved to point out that he was the brilliant car guy behind the G5. He was the car guy who killed the GTO FOREVER. He was the car guy who couldn’t figure out how to sell the G8. He was the car guy who called Pontiac damaged goods, right before he called it a one car niche brand, right before he killed it. And that is JUST ONE division.

      A couple of years later and one cozy interview and this guy who used to be the fuel behind the GM death watch and the target of an annual foot in mouth award… is suddenly all big and bad…

      Yes Maximum Bob is the smartest person to help drive a multinational company worth almost 100 billion into bankruptcy.

      Yes there is much to learn from Bob. Ask him what GM should do… and then try the EXACT opposite.


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