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.