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(08:50 Oct. 09, 2001)
What about Bob? Lutz memo starts stirring things up at General Motors


Focus groups? Over-used and not reliable. Design? Undervalued and “corporate criteriaed to death.” Content? Not at the expense of profit or shareholder value. So says Robert Lutz, freshly anointed product czar at General Motors, in a widely circulated memo, entitled “Strongly Held Beliefs.”
The memo, leaked almost immediately to the media, created such a buzz throughout the world’s biggest car company that CEO Richard Wagoner felt compelled to issue a statement saying, in essence but not in so many words, “Go, Bob, Go.” Lutz, Wagoner said, was hired to challenge the status quo and that’s what his memo does.

More than a half-decade of committee-laden “brand management” looks to be taking it on the chin as Lutz pressures the corporation to develop more exciting products in less time and at lower cost. “A good planning process,” the vice chairman for product development wrote less than a month after taking the helm, “cannot robotically create a good future portfolio [of cars and trucks].”

Lutz, who declares his motto to be “often wrong but seldom in doubt” also assailed excessive democracy and “consensus building” as counterproductive and hailed the virtues of tension and conflict in the workplace.

He certainly generated some of the latter. Reaction to the memo, predictably, varies depending on its implications for the recipient.

“I’ve not met him personally, but we do, let’s say, feel his presence,” said one brand manager who seemed to hear the message as one that was primarily about cost cutting. From other points of view, the cost-reduction emphasis seemed less significant than Lutz’s attempts to move GM toward inspired products with exciting design.

Lutz’s influence, say insiders, has already amended the look of the next Corvette (due in 2004 as a 2005 model), and forced re-evaluation of the Lambda platform, which was to underpin a range of cars and minivans worldwide.

A GM engineer told us Lutz has “just now signed off on [the new Corvette]. He didn’t like it at first but did sign off on it [with changes]. It was a little bit of a struggle, but not too bad. I’ve seen worse.”

Consumer focus groups, Lutz said, can be misleading. They liked the “talking car” and the all-digital dashboard to name only two marketplace flops.

“Most customers want a vehicle of new, fresh exciting appearance . . . a great powertrain, superb dynamics, and, obviously, safety and quality. But the thought that huge advances in voice-recognition, or screen-technology, or multi-function displays or ever-trickier consoles, or embroidered floormats, etc., etc. will somehow override other deficiencies (or, worse yet, ‘averageness’) is wrong.”

The memo found its warmest reception among GM designers, long stifled by a structure that rates design as a secondary or, at best, equal priority to other concerns. In Lutz’s words: “By the time the myriad research-driven ‘best-in-class’ package, the carryover architecture, the manufacturing wants, the non-stone chip rocker placement, the carryover sunroof module, and on and on, are loaded in, and the whole thing is given to Design with the words, ‘Here, wrap this for us,’ the ship sailing toward that dreaded destination, ‘Lackluster,’ has already left the dock.”

In response, a designer told AutoWeek: “He makes me excited to come to work again. He’ll shift the balance back to product. He has knowledge and credibility, he’ll admit he’s made mistakes along the way, which gives him credibility to us designers.

“I enjoy him. He has the passion of a (retired design vp Chuck) Jordan, but without all the charts and graphs and studies. That’s not to say he’s not methodical—he is—he’s level-headed and quick with a decision.

“He also seems very astute about design. If a car strikes him as ugly he’ll say we’re not gonna do that. Again, he’s methodical but if it looks dumb he won’t do it.” Maybe so, but he’s also willing to regard the Pontiac Aztek (which his memo spells incorrectly) as a “noble effort” in the context of being willing to take risks rather than playing it safe, as has been GM’s custom.

“Errors of commission are less damaging to us than errors of omission,” Lutz wrote in leading to that conclusion. “In our business, taking no risk is to accept the certainty of long-term failure.”

All Content © 2001 Crain Communications, Inc.

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