Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic when I began to read this book but, that said, I was disappointed in what the book offers because I expected from Bob Lutz a more balanced analysis of his career in the automotive industry. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the subtitle. There are many warriors on many different battlefields and Lutz was indeed a formidable adversary but, that said, there is nothing in this book to suggest that his ultimate objective was to save "the soul of American business." Moreover, he offers little indication that others should share credit for the victories he cites nor does he share blame for defeats. The book is part memoir and part jeremiad. I think it would have been more interesting and more informative had he resisted the temptation to write "One Good Guy vs The Bad Guys Who Don't Get It."
With regard to my rating, I think the historical material (covering several decades) is worth at least two stars and I added another for Lutz's eyewitness (albeit subjective) opinions of what he experienced. I also think the last chapter, "If I Had Been CEO," is worth another star. Lutz immediately concedes that the chapter's material is "highly conjectural." Indeed it is. To a point I made earlier, there is no indication in this chapter that the soul of American business would have been saved had he been a CEO. However, would it have been sufficient had he ensured that GM, Chrysler, and Ford avoided the mistakes that caused so many problems for them? He was a senior-level executive at all three and presumably not a passive observer in the C-suite.
on 6 October 2011
Bob Lutz belongs to a dying breed which will be missed when it's gone. Garrulous, opinionated, politically incorrect and unstintingly frank, it's hard to see how he ever made it in corporate America, and harder yet to see how his like will ever make it again.
More is the pity is my assessment and, for that matter, his too.
Over a long career Lutz has held senior positions at all the big US automobile manufacturers and at least one European one. The closest he came to outright CEO was an eight year spell as Vice Chairman at General Motors from 2000 until its filing for Bankruptcy Protection in 2008.
This book - Lutz' second - entertainingly recounts that period and GM's corporate history leading up to it; a history, in Lutz' telling, organised around the theory that GM was, from its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, laid low by the cult of Total Quality Management.
I must declare something of an interest: I work in an industry, and for an organisation, suffering a similar blight. Lutz' passionate peroration rang resonantly with me.
Now, of course, everyone believes things aren't quite what they used to be. But even without knowing much about cars it's hard to argue that any vehicle in GM's 1998 fleet could bear favourable comparison with a '57 Chevvy, a '65 GTO or a '68 Camaro.
By 1998 the fall from grace was complete. Lutz identifies a number of factors at work. Some have the air of hobby horses environmental skepticism) and bete noires (Toyota, and the "left wing" media's love affair with it); many go against the political grain and are expressed indelicately (if entertainingly) enough to prompt those who wish to, to write the book off altogether: pooh-poohing concerns about the melting ice cap, Lutz remarks "Hello! Polar Bears can swim!"
Many, however, are insightful and benefit greatly in their expression from Lutz' direct approach. Lutz writes simply, clearly, and with great humour.
Chief among his targets, as the book's title suggests, is the cult of the management consultancy which has swept the world since the summer of love. The relentless drive towards cost cutting, commoditisation, brand segmentation and regularisation - all things, Lutz concedes, which have their place in a well-run organisation - at the expense of product excellence, instead of in support of it (a component of product excellence is reliability and value for money, after all) is the operating cause of GM's long decline and fall.
Lutz' anecdotes are never less than hilarious as they illustrate how process and efficiency was allowed to drown out all other components, including not just design and style but product quality itself. A $25,000 investment cannot be branded and flogged the same way a toothpaste can, and as long as the predominant management ethos is that it can (for decades GM assumed their customers chiefly wanted a low-cost means of conveyance from points A to B, and that anything more was a nice-to-have), the management strategy is bound to fail. For in that scenario GM is competing with the second hand car market, a fight it simply cannot win. And nor did it.
Product excellence, Lutz argues compellingly, must be the overriding goal to which all other endeavours are aligned. Product line rationalisation is always justified if it permits greater focus of resources on better quality product. This is no more than a codification of the 80:20 rule. Somehow, with TQM, this truism of capital production was lost in the PowerPoint miasma.
Lutz is equally perspicacious on the subject of regulation, and he isn't quite the gas-guzzling scorched earther you might expect. the sine qua non of GM's trouble was Government political weakness in response to the 1970s fuel crisis. Instead of doing what every other developed nation had long since done, and imposing taxes at the pumps to constrain demand, congress took the politically convenient measure of constraining supply, by imposing draconian constraints on engine capacity and configuration. Having for a generation enjoyed pump prices a quarter of those anywhere else in the world, US manufacturers suddenly found themselves having to drastically retool, redesign and reconfigure their entire fleets, by regulatory fiat, whereas their European and Japanese competitors, long used to higher fuel prices in their domestic markets,were able to flood the US market with well developed, tested and compliant vehicles. Needless to say the new range of four cylinder American cars were beset with teething and performance problems, and as Lutz would have it, the US manufacturers have been on the back foot ever since. Lutz' view is that pump taxes would have given GM the breathing room to modify its fleet over a sensible period of time.
That complete revision of the product range unhappily coincided with a period where the Bean Counters were allowed the run of the ranch, and a catalogue of disasters, all briliiantly recounted by Lutz, ensues. I had to wipe away tears of laughter on the tube - never a good look - at Lutz description of the GM ash tray that worked at 40 degrees below zero.
There are great lessons to be learned in this candid, entertaining book, and I dare say Mr Lutz would be an excellent raconteur.
Car-making, in essence, is a simple, if difficult business which requires the instinct of product experts - "car guys" - to be successful. The drive to manage away the idiosyncrasies of these very individuals in the name of consistency and process misses the stark fact that often times it is precisely that idiosyncrasy that generates the spark of excellence in the first place.
In the final analysis Lutz is grudgingly respectful even of Toyota: still a privately held business, with excellent processes and systems but still subject to an imperial will that Lutz found sorely lacking at GM.
A hymn to all those at the peril of management consultants and other well-intentioned parasites, this book is well recommended.
on 27 August 2011
At an age when mere mortals would be happily retired, US automotive legend Bob Lutz accepts the task of managing all of GM's new product delivery. Unbelievable that a corporate management appraisal system could encourage otherwise capable people to ignore styling reviews and accept insane new product targets for carry over components, but that's what was happening. How else could the Pontiac Aztek have made it into volume production? Only the guys in charge of pick up trucks, large SUVs and the Corvette appeared to be delivering desireable vehicles, and that was only for the North American market.
This book will be of most interest to those in the car industry, but should tempt anyone with an interest in large, arrogant, American multi-nationals and a an over reliance on analysis versus common sense.
Not everyone will agree with Bob's views, but he makes some interesting points. For example, why the media anti-SUV focus when such vehicles are way more useful than sports cars and GTs? A good SUV will carry as many people as a mini-van, tow boats or horse boxes and cope with poor roads and bad weather. The sports car owner will likely enjoy the same purchase cost and fuel consumption but only carry two people, limited luggage and only beat the SUV up a mountain pass or on an empty Autobahn.