“Car Guys Versus Bean Counters” Is A Crock Of Shit

Th neverending story... (the cover of GM's 2006 annual report)

Th never-ending story… (the cover of GM’s 2006 annual report)

When Bob Lutz’s book “Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business” first came out, my review was somewhat distracted by the fact that Maximum Bob had name-checked me in it (or misrepresented a NY Times Op-Ed of mine, depending on how you look at it). Still, the book’s basic problem was all-too familiar in the world of auto executive coverage: the benefits of insider insight were strongly counterbalanced by objectivity problems. I noted

 …though the title sets up an internal conflict within GM, Lutz spends so much space blaming outsiders for GM’s woes that, by a third of the way through, it begins to feel more like apologia than clear-eyed soul-searching… 

…In what is likely part insightful truth and part gentlemanly whitewash, Lutz frames his battle as being not with any one “bean counter” but a faceless (and therefore, blameless) culture in which management-by-the-numbers outweighed personal accountability. Lutz identifies individual “true believers” who he recruited in his design and product-led transformation of The General, but essentially absolves the thousands of others, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner, of any responsibility for GM’s continued decline and eventual collapse.

Lutz’s narrative of post-2001 GM history, in which he led a comeback of “car guy” talent against the decades-long rule of the “Bean Counters”, has been on my mind quite a bit in recent weeks, as GM’s decade-old dirty laundry has been piled into the public’s lap. Already, Congress’s investigation has made it clear that GM rejected fixes to now-recalled ignitions for “business case” considerations, making the ignition scandal a fatal case of “bean counting” that occurred on Lutz’s watch. In light of recent revelations, Lutz’s claim to have been GM’s champion of product quality in a “Battle For The Soul of American Business” deserves another skeptical look.

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The Great Auto Safety Crash, Or, Why You Need To Be A Lawyer To Do An Automotive Journalist’s Work

GMCobaltNHTSA

I'm not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960's...

I’m not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960’s…

Of all the automotive sector topics covered by the business media, defect recalls are consistently one of the most tricky to cover. Most defects are the inevitable products of immensely complex supply chains and constant price pressure, and recalls for them are ultimately a sign of a company responding to the problem. And with some 22 million vehicles recalled from the US market in 2013, consumers can hardly be expected to know which ones represent grounds for real concern.

Because automakers control all the information about the products they make, reporters on the automotive safety beat have little choice but rely on the company line for their stories. Only the threat of investigation by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration compels automakers to fully reveal their dirty laundry, and only NHTSA’s complaint database gives the public an opportunity to compare their experiences with the company line. No wonder the first real auto safety journalist (and the inspiration for NHTSA’s founding) was a lawyer.

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