GM needs to focus on building better cars
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
This is the wrong time for General Motors to make itself a
laughingstock. Not that there's a good time, but it's one thing to be
the butt of jokes if you're Microsoft with a 90% market share and
$220-billion market capitalization.
It's another thing entirely if:
• You're crawling out of bankruptcy
• The U.S. government owns 61% of you
• You hope to have a big-bucks stock sale in the next couple of years
• You alienated millions of buyers with lousy vehicles in the '80s and '90s.
A whole political party seems dedicated to making you look like the
incompetent, union-run tool of a wannabe socialist.
With all that going on, why pin a "kick me" sign to your own back?
There's never been any shortage of brilliant people working at GM. They
ran the company into the ground by wasting time over stuff that didn't
lead to better cars.
Former GM sales boss Mark LaNeve used to dismiss that as "North of
Toledo thinking." Here's a simple way to recognize it: if nobody who
lives outside Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties cares about an issue,
it qualifies. Blow it off.
This week's "Chevrolet vs. Chevy" snafu is the perfect example. A
synopsis, in case you were lucky enough not to waste a precious breath
on this bit of idiocy: 1. GM brass decreed that no one who works for the
company can refer to the company's biggest brand by its affectionate
nickname, Chevy. 2. Dimwits outside the company thought GM was
prohibiting them from calling it Chevy. 3. Some slightly brighter bulb
pointed out that Chevrolet advertising frequently uses the name Chevy to
sell vehicles, and isn't that the object of the game? 4. GM issued a
statement telling civilians we're free to call Chevy whatever we like.
Time to avoid distractions
GM should learn a couple of lessons from this farce.
The company is under greater scrutiny than ever before. Every taxpayer
owns a piece of GM. An unprecedented number of people want to believe
the worst about the company, either for political reasons or because GM
sold them a clunker years ago.
GM should really, really look like it's concentrating on building great
A couple of other recent announcements set off warning bells.
Planning shuffle could pay off
GM's latest management shuffle moved the product-planning team from
under vice chairman and global product boss Tom Stephens and made it a
direct-report to Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre.
Initially mistaken as Whitacre shoving aside the engineers and
designers, this could make it easier for the experts to do their jobs.
Product planners study markets, customers, technologies and trends to
figure out what kind of vehicles a successful company must offer in the
future. When they report to another discipline -- say, engineering --
there's a chance that group will stack the deck in favor of its needs at
the expense of other parts of the company.
The new structure eliminates that possibility.
The jury's still out on the other move: the creation of GM Ventures to
invest in companies developing new technologies. The idea is to
guarantee GM access to the best, first.
Weighing in GMV's favor is the fact that Jon Lauckner, one of GM's
sharpest engineers and executives, is running the shop. In the past,
though, GM sometimes suffered from tying itself too closely to a single
technology. It lagged badly on navigation and hands-free phone systems
because it considered those systems competitors to its in-house OnStar
service. It forgot that the competitors who really matter are Ford,
Honda and Toyota.
Google's motto is "Don't be evil."
Until it has a track record of good decisions, the new GM might
consider: "Try not to look like a nincompoop."
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