By on June 15, 2005

Is GM's glass half empty or almost completely empty?Bob's blog is back. Once again, GM's Main Man has gone online to tell it like it is. Once again, T-TAC's ready to read between the lines, looking for the lead cloud surrounding the silver lining. Interesting enough, Mr. Lutz' June 10th entry, 'Only the Best', begins with a major mea culpa. GM's Vice President for New Product Development gives us a full and frank explanation of how The General earned its recent (as in 40-year-old) reputation for lackluster design and dubious build quality. Well, more frank than full, but it's still worth a careful read…

"A few years ago,' Bob writes, 'planners would sift through reams of data, segment the market, analyze and deconstruct the data until they discovered a niche in which we needed a new product…. the designers were given a formula to work with. Not a blank canvas, more like a paint-by-numbers scenario." So NOW we know why the Pontiac Aztec is so ugly: the design team lacked numeracy. Quite how the beancounters arrived at the formula that is the Corvette-powered SSR convertible pickup is anybody's guess. But wait! There's more! Things have changed! There's an answer!

"Our winning products will not be determined by careful analysis; they will captivate and enthrall through imaginative design and flawless execution." So it's out with all that boring old careful analysis stuff and in with free flights of the fancy! Bob's poster child for this endeavor– its tail lights providing bloggers with their only photographic relief from Max Bob's prose– is the upcoming Chevrolet HHR. While the HHR is little more than a PT Cruiser clone that's arriving several years late to Chrysler's retro-styled minivan party, Bob's blog clearly believes the vehicle represents the purity of GM's new "Right Brain Rules" philosophy.

What's more, Max Bob's blog celebrates the HHR's build quality, claiming it's constructed to, gulp, Lexus standards. "I ask you to compare that $15,995 Chevy HHR– in terms of sheet metal fits, hem flanges, the way all of the panels fit to each other– to a Lexus GS 400, and tell me if there is any significant difference." As soon as Bob tells the average car buyer what a hem flange is, I'm sure they'll let him know. Meanwhile, Mr. Lutz might be interested to hear that Lexus doesn't make a GS400; it's now the GS430. Still, comparing GM's new products to its competitor's old products makes an excellent point– if not the one Maximum Bob intended.

There's no mistaking Bob's subsequent admission that GM interiors have been a little "utilitarian" (presumably in the same sense that a hair shirt is a bit "uncomfortable"). I only wish he'd resisted the urge to defend GM's indefensible cabins by saying they're "easy to keep clean". And Max Bob's choice for aspirational quality is a bit bizarre for a guy whose company proclaims its products' domestic provenance: "You'll experience well-crafted interiors, great materials, knobs and switches that feel like they're on an expensive Japanese camera." Reports just back from the HHR front say it ain't necessarily so. And students of unintended irony note: America used to make cameras.

Speaking of latent anti-Americanism, Bob's blog feels free cast aspersions on his fellow countrymen. After promising to "really target being the best" (as opposed to simply being the best), Bob says the effort has 'required some recalibration of the internal culture, especially in the United States." Huh? Is Maximum Bob saying that GM's American workers are less willing to accept a competitive challenge than their foreign counterparts? If so, I agree– given the way GM goes about running its business in The Land of the Free.

Here's the deal: while Maximum Bob's blog correctly identifies GM's corporate culture as the source of its current woes, he fails to understand, admit and address the fact that GM's 'issues' run a lot deeper than an over-reliance on statistical data, or widespread indifference to competitive pressure. Maxi Bob's willful ignorance of the full scope and scale of GM's cancerous culture is completely understandable; GM execs live, work and play in their own little world. But Bob's inability to fully grasp the nettle is ultimately a sad reflection of his managerial myopia, and a dire warning about the company's future.

So take a good look around Bob, before it's too late. Notice that GM's culture lacks any hint of accountability: bad executives fail upwards, incompetent workers hide behind union skirts. Clock the internal fragmentation and divisiveness: eight divisions fight for resources without the slighest regard for the corporate good. Observe the stifled creativity: decisions made by committees that can't make decisions, hampered by union rules that make innovation impossible.

When you're through with this no-holds-barred cultural cross-check, ask yourself this: what would it take to really shake up the place? Mass firings? Union confrontation (i.e. strike)? Brand re-organization? Relocation? Bankruptcy? Whatever it is, do it. Then, and only then, will GM have a shot at being the best.

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