“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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GM Recall: Answers Hiding In Plain Sight?

And all the investigations, all of Lutz's men/ couldn't figure out who was in charge of things then.

And all the investigations, all of Lutz’s men, couldn’t figure out who was in charge of things then…

In the wake of General Motors’ and Mary Barra’s public lambasting last week, at the hands Congress and Comedy alike, a new sense of gravity now surrounds the still-unfolding scandal. Combined with the shocking facts surrounding the defect itself, Barra’s performance paints a picture of a GM unable to establish basic accountability without outside intervention. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, and sounding more like a corporate consultant than radical activist, Ralph Nader advises Barra to act relentlessly, arguing:

Look what it’s costing them: It’s already at $750 million and growing. What’s it cost them in lost sales? All kinds of stuff spills out, even if it’s not directly related to the ignition switch. She knows that it’s just going to get worse and worse. There are going to be whistle-blowers, and plain envelopes, especially when the press sees prizes — they see Polk Awards, Pulitzers, and so on — once they get into that realm, there’s no stopping it.

This has all the elements. It’s a cocktail that gets it going. It is very difficult to get the press into that realm — take it from someone who knows from over the years.

Ralph’s right: Barra’s unconvincing performance last week has stepped up pressure to find the answers she wouldn’t provide, and there’s no knowing where some tough digging could lead. After all, there are answers that Barra refused to give still hiding in (relatively) plain sight. With the help of a single book and internet access, anyone can find insight into the problems that are stumping Congress, the media and Mary Barra herself… Let’s not wait for the investigation, shall we?

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