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Car guys versus bean counters

Autoline Detroit recently played host to Bob Lutz, and, as is always the case, the former General Motors vice chairman dished out some great commentary. Lutz was promoting his new book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, and talk quickly turned to his role as it related to product development and high-level decision making at GM. While on the topic of brand management, Lutz revealed a few rather interesting tidbits about his former employer:

* All Chevrolet vehicles were required to have five-spoke aluminum wheels and a chrome band up front, as part of the Bowtie brand's overall image.
* Pontiac was required to utilize "see-through" headrests, despite the fact that they cost more to produce while offering no consumer value.
* All Buicks required a sweep spear in the exterior design language.
* Cadillac considered building a 550-horsepower supercharged Escalade.
* Saturn was working on a seven-passenger Vue.
* Many of the non-car person GM board members preferred to drive imports.
* Proportion and shape didn't matter as long as all the brand-image boxes were checked.

Lutz provides an interesting look at the type of decision making that forced GM into a position of bankruptcy. The automaker was being run solely by folks focused on techniques and ideals that don’t work in the industry. We don’t want to give away the entire interview, but it’s worth watching all 26 minutes. Click past the jump to see for yourself.

Also, judging solely by the above screenshot, we’ll cast a vote for Robert De Niro to play Lutz in the inevitable movie about this period in General Motors’ history.

30 minute video in the article that I found rather interesting. Basically he tells us how GM ran themselves out of business, not their competition.

Thanks. That was very interesting. Interesting that the Japanese lobbied for the CAFE standards. I didn’t know they could vote here.

According to the Supreme Court, every corporation with money to spend can buy as much influence as they want. Spending money is the new freedom of speech, you know.

a sure testament against all these redundant “brands” that are essentially the same cars/trucks underneath.
Ford just got rid of the Mercury tags. A good corperate move, I think, to remove redundancy.
GM was rife with redundancy. All those corperate directives were aimed at creating some sort of noticable difference between “brands” which was their overall problem. Un-neccessary redundancy.

Same goes for so many other big fish corperations which have eaten up all these little fish along the way.
Appliances comes to mind.
So many “brand names” are on refrigerators and washer/driers that all come out of the same assembly line.

Lutz was on a morning NPR show recently to hawk his book. He offered intersting commentary on how the Aztek came about. It was during the era when GM was run by ultra-rational people. They wanted a car with certain interiorand exterior size characteristics; it was designed from the inside out. After the interior was designed they decided how big it would be on the exterior. Then they handed it off to the body design guys to hang sheet metal on. They even thought that they would sell oodles of them, believeing that there were millions of uber-rational people just like them. I bet they don’t do that again.

Unfortunately, history repeats itself. Chrysler corporation got itself in trouble with a bean counter named Lynn Townsend and almost went under around 1960. The corporation turned itself around with a new leader only to have even more trouble in the late 1970s. Lee Iaccoca turned Chrysler around again and made it profitable only to have it happen after he retired. Roger Smith, another bean counter, did GM no good.
Lee Iaccoca was a car guy. When Bunkie Knudsen took over the reins at Pontiac in about 1955, he turned things around. Pontiac went from its geezer car image to a young man’s car. In 1957, the Pontiac was one of the fastest cars in the GM lineup where previously it wasn’t much of a performer. Why the boards of the automobile companies never learn from history is beyond me.

It’s the same with almost every industry…

Take a look at Apple…When Steve Jobs wasn’t in charge…Apple almost went bankrupt…The CEO of Apple was NOT technical…and didn’t even understand the technology…and thus made extremely poor decisions for a technical company…Steve Jobs comes back as CEO and Apple moves back to profitability. He made decisions based on technology that the old CEO would NEVER have made…Their thought process are complete different.

You do need bean counters to HELP run the company…but having them in charge is a disaster waiting to happen.

Steve Jobs and Apple is an excellent example of a leader with insight vs. a bena counter. The MBA was originally designed for engineers who were going into management. I have a good friend who is an electrical engineer who earned an MBA and became the associate manager of facilities at my institution. We have worked on many projects together on our church’s house committee. We have gotten our hands dirty together doing electrical and plumbing work. He has great technical understanding and works well with people.
On the other hand, I worked as a research design consultant and had to report to a Ph.D. in English who was hired because he was “a good manager”. It was a disaster. This man believed that since we had computers, I could write a one page handout so that a person could read it, understand any statistic and be able to have the computer run the statistical analysis.

20-30 years ago, things changed and business became accounting oriented and short term oriented. Nobody seemed to care what was good for the business in the long term, just the short term. All that &%$* was taught in business schools and the MBAs fed the greedy fat cats. Then there was money to be made by moving everything overseas and the race to the bottom continued. I think the statement that the board members prefered Japanese cars and were not car guys is the most telling statement and is repeated in board rooms across the country. It’s easy to get cynical about business after watching this stuff for a while.

Triedaq -

I’ve worked with and for several managers who were NOT technical…and 99.99999% of the time it was a nightmare…They have no idea how to estimate costs or time.

One manager gave a poor evaluation to one senior very technical engineer because he wasn’t writing as much code as the other engineers in the group. That’s how he was measuring an engineers performance (the number of lines per week/month). Didn’t matter that this engineer was designing and writing all the device drivers for the project (which was probably the toughest code to write). Very dedicated engineer…After his review…he got up…went back to his desk and wrote his resignation…Handed it to the clueless manager and walked out…Within 2 days he found himself another job at one of our competitors.

It also seems that management and workers drift further and further apart every day; I see it where I work all the time.

Some engineer studies someone’s write up of how we do the job, comes out to the line and talks to upper management/guests like he’s the person who designed the job and knows everything about it. The engineer decides to change something around and has us try to do it their way, we prove several times that it won’t work, they leave. Weeks go by and we forget about it, and along comes the line supervisor telling us we’re gonna start doing things the new way and sets things up to do it. Engineer gets praise from upper management for doing a good job and we suffer because of it.

They also tell us they’re designing the jobs so anyone can come in off the street and be able to do the jobs. But if you put on of them on the line, they’re totally clueless about EVERYTHING. I actually had one of them get angry with me for not doing the job exactly how they wanted me to do it. They had me taping the corners of the tops, among various other things, and she wanted me to wait until I was grabbing for the pieces of tape to hit the button to dispense it. Every other time I used a tape dispenser, I hit the button after I grabbed the last piece so I could have the next one ready for me to use. I actually had to explain that to the girl and she still got pissy with me. I ignored her and went about my business with her harping in my ear most of the time(I can’t tell you what she was saying because I tuned her out).

On a different line, some young engineer, freshly graduated from school, goes back there and was talking to someone about how to do something, they proved them wrong by doing AND saying it wouldn’t work. But the engineer told them “I’m an engineer, I know everything”. That was when the person stepped out of the way and let the engineer do it by themself. When even the engineer couldn’t do it, the person told them they’d show them how it’s done(the original way). The engineer left the area and wouldn’t even talk to/look at from then on out.the worker

Back in the 1930s, when one went to work for Packard as an engineer, one started on the line and learned how the Packard was built. Once the engineer learned the process, then the engineer could begin design work. The Packard back then was the prestige car to own.
The problem with simple-minded bean counters is that the people they choose for lower level management positions are also simple minded. Good technical people are viewed as a threat.

I’ve seen bad judgement on both sides of the management / worker fence.

I’ve seen workers who would not adapt to a changed situation, even though the change was more efficient for THEM - and I guess it was simply because it was “change”.

I’ve seen management make changes that made no sense - and I guess it was simply because change is sometimes percieved as improvment.

I think there is a lot of dirt to be thrown around - and no one group is totally responsible for it.

I worked on a team with 5 hourly workers (I was the engineer). I learned that they had many good ideas and should definitely consulted when it comes to the areas they worked in. I also learned that they had absolutely no idea how to think critically. I provided that. I also was able to measure progress, while they couldn’t. Together, we came up with solutions, prioritized them, and tested them. Without them, I would have missed many good, practical ideas. Without me, they never would have known if what they did actually worked. We made a great team and learned a new respect for each other.

trust me, they don’t listen. or, if they do, it was THEIR idea not ours, especially if it worked. Most of our engineers are hired from other companies, not within. One of the newer engineers came from a Chrysler or GM plant

Working with piers or having subordinates who aren’t skilled is one thing.

But having a manager who’s making decisions based on the technology he/she has no idea about is something completely different. I’ve seen it many times…and it ALWAYS ends in disaster.

“trust me, they don’t listen…”

I wasn’t talking about anyone but me. I realize that there are engineers with poor interpersonal skills. Sometimes it seems that it’s a prerequisite for the job. Then again, there are a lot of bad bosses who do the same thing whether they are engineers or not.

Every car maker and moderate to large company has bean counters. Mechanics see evidence of this all of the time no matter if it involves a large assembly or something simple such as replacing a machine screw with a rivet to producing a part out of injection molded plastic.

I am retired, but obtained professional certification as a bean counter. In my personal experience, most bean counters aren’t much better than mindless idiots. Sorry, that’s my opinion. They memorize GAAP and can run spread sheets, and that’s about it. No common sense.

However, let me tell you what I consider to be a horror story on management in a large international corporation where I worked as a technician. I started on microprocessors in 1974, not many worked on them then. I was in my 30’s and at the peak of my ability. I was really good then, (though later in my career wasn’t worth so much.)

Our department of very high tech electronics, did not have extra projects. That means if I got my stuff fixed and tested and sold, I was out of work till new work came in.

I was fast enough I spent most of my time “hangin’ out”. I was fast enough I averaged 100% on all 40 hours while actually working an hour a day. Our term for this level of performance was “white lightning”.

I fixed every board, no scrapping of high cost assemblies because I couldn’t fix them. I got a job posting for much more money. A few weeks later, a buddy came to my new job, to tell me my previous boss was boasting he got rid of that lazy guy who only worked an hour a day, and got two hard working employees.

They were both working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and when an assembly failed, they scrapped it out and ordered a new one because they had no idea how to troubleshoot it.

This foreman was so stupid he thought 2 men working a total of 168 hours a week, and getting paid for a total of 224 hours with overtime bonuses, a lot of it at 150% pay after 8 hours a day and on Saturday, and on Sunday 200% pay, was better than a “lazy” guy who worked only an hour a day, while getting paid for 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. I don’t remember how much we made back then, but if it were $10/hour, those guys were earning $2240 a week and I made $400, base pay.

I wish I were making this up.

This should be a sticky post, I enjoyed reading the replies.