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.
The executive shake-ups show no signs of stopping at GM, as Ed Whitacre ended the week with yet another re-shuffle. And this time Whitacre himself is the big winner. Automotive News [sub] reports that Whitacre has assumed control of GM’s global product planning, leaving former planning boss Tom Stephens with the more prosaic responsibility of overseeing new product development. Whitacre will be assisted by new VP for product planning Steve Carlisle, who, unlike Whitacre, actually has some experience in product planning. Carlisle replaces Jon Lauckner, who will head up GM’s new venture capital unit. But the big news here is that a man who only just learned the term “segment” about five and a half months ago, is now in charge of GM’s global product planning. Quick learner or egomaniac?
Honda hasn’t always replaced its bread-and-butter compact, the Civic, every five years. The Mk.1 Civic soldiered from 1972 until 1979. The second through fifth generations were replaced on a regular four-year schedule, before Honda settled into a five-year product cadence with the sixth generation (1996-2000). If it were to keep with that cadence, we’d be seeing a ninth-generation Civic sometime this year, replacing the Mk.VIII, which debuted in late 2005. According to Automotive News [sub], however, Honda is holding off on releasing a new Civic until 2011. What gives?
Bob Lutz may have left GM, but TTAC’s not through with the man of Maximum just yet. One quote in particular, from an “exit interview” with gm-volt.com, exemplifies the kind of candor that seems likely to disappear from GM along with Lutz. Possibly for good reasons. Well, good PR reasons, anyway. After all, with Lutz unable to deny that GM will lose money and/or battle sticker shock with its forthcoming Volt EREV, he’s the kind of guy who will tell the unspeakable truth instead of playing coy like a good PR man. To wit:
How do we get the cost down without in any way diminishing the value of the car in the eyes of the customer? By just doing some more elegant engineering than we did the first time around where we inadvertently did some belt and suspenders stuff because we wanted to move fast. Now as we look back at the car we say ‘gee I wish we’d done his different,’ …’ gee I wish we’d done that different’ because this is a very expensive solution and we could have done that for a lot less money.
That faint sound you just heard was Ed Whitacre expelling fillet of rattlesnake out his nose after reading that little nugget. Meanwhile, you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth: the Mk.1 Volt will be expensive, unprofitable, and unpolished. Or, to use a PR term, “belt and suspenders.”
The ongoing kerfluffle over Toyota’s recall of over 2m vehicles for a gas pedal defect which (allegedly) caused unintended acceleration has caught much of the automotive media flat-footed. How could it be, many have wondered, that the automaker most associated in the US market with the concept of quality has slipped so badly? As TTAC’s Steve Lang recently discussed, Toyota has been on a decontenting binge since the mid-to-late-1990s, putting profit above the quality obsession that had defined its operations up to that point. As a result, the current generation of decontented Toyotas and accompanying quality issues and recalls can be seen as the culmination of a long-term trend. But why did that transition take place? Though it’s easy to blame greed and mismanagement for the decline in Toyota’s quality, the decline in standards was actually a natural progression of Toyota’s constantly-evolving, efficiency-obsessed production system.
For most of the last 20 years, Ford and Mazda have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship which worked quite well. Ford needed Mazda’s engineering and Mazda needed Ford’s volume to keep their profit margins. In short, everyone was happy. Then came the recession. Ford needed money and it needed it fast, so they mortgaged their logo, cut staff and closed factories. But curiously, Ford divested a huge chunk of Mazda which netted them, in the auto world, very little money. Ford reduced their 33.4% stake in Mazda to 13.4%, netting $540 million, but effectively losing Mazda. Not that Ford’s Mark Fields is worried.
It’s not that GM’s Korean Daewoo division doesn’t need more money. The problem is that the only bank willing to lend a dime, the Korean Development Bank, wants strings attached. Since GM came up with the cash to buy up Daewoo’s $413m rights offering, it says Daewoo is out of trouble for two more years. Or 18 months… depending on that troublesome global car market. Meanwhile, GM-Daewoo’s $5b worth of forward contracts will burn up $300m in cash every month, as the debt matures. Although KDB and GM-Daewoo’s other lenders refuse to roll any of that debt forward and have been firm about enacting safeguards before loaning the automaker more money, GM’s Nick Reilly says Daewoo can now negotiate from a position of relative strength. Emphasis on relative.