GM's Post-Lutz Planning Reshuffle: Fewer Reviews, More Market Research

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
gm s post lutz planning reshuffle fewer reviews more market research

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.

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  • ClutchCarGo ClutchCarGo on Jun 14, 2010

    I still don't understand why the Malibu Maxx is so unloved. While it's not a great car, it is a pretty good one with a lot of practical functionality. My wife, sister-in-law and niece all drive them and are very happy with the styling, but they really like the versatility. I even see echoes of the Avanti in the profile view. I know that they didn't sell well, but I thought that was more the result of Chevy not knowing how to market them, plus the fact that the sedan version was pretty lame.

    • See 1 previous
    • Mtymsi Mtymsi on Jun 14, 2010

      The Malibu Maxx was a total flop in the marketplace. The car just flat out didn't sell no matter how functional it was. IMO the styling had a lot to do with the poor sales. For cars in general styling has always outsold functionality by a wide margin.

  • Buickman Buickman on Jun 14, 2010

    doesn't matter who's in charge, make it beautiful and it will sell.

  • Zerofoo The UAW understands that this is their last stand. Their future consists of largely robot assembled EVs that contain far fewer parts. Factories moving to southern "right to work" states and factories moving to the southern-most state of Mexico.I don't think lights-out auto factories are on the horizon, but UAW demands might move those automated manufacturing process timelines up.McDonalds opened a fully automated restaurant in Texas in 2022 in response to a $15/hour minimum wage demand. I'm fairly certain that at $130/hr - fully robotic car factories start to make sense.
  • Redapple2 Cherry 20 yr old Defenders are $100,000 +. Til now.
  • Analoggrotto So UAW is singling out Ford, treating them slightly better in order to motivate the entire effort. Mildly Machiavellian but this will cost them dearly in the future. The type of ill will and betrayal the Detroit-3 must be feeling right now will be the utter demise of UAW. I just hope that this tribulation is not affecting Mary Barra's total hotness.
  • Redapple2 I guessed they were ~$150,000. Maybe attainable.
  • Redapple2 want one.