In 2001, General Motors hired Bob Lutz out of retirement with a mandate to save the company by making great cars again. He launched a war against penny pinching, office politics, turf wars, and risk avoidance. After declaring bankruptcy during the recession of 2008, GM is back on track thanks to its embrace of Lutz's philosophy. When Lutz got into the auto business in the early sixties, CEOs knew that if you captured the public's imagination with great cars, the money would follow. The car guys held sway, and GM dominated with bold, creative leadership and iconic brands like Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, GMC, and Chevrolet. But then GM's leadership began to put their faith in analysis, determined to eliminate the "waste" and "personality worship" of the bygone creative leaders. Management got too smart for its own good. With the bean counters firmly in charge, carmakers (and much of American industry) lost their single-minded focus on product excellence. Decline followed. Lutz's commonsense lessons (with a generous helping of fascinating anecdotes) will inspire readers at any company facing the bean counter analysis-paralysis menace.
Bob Lutz is at his best when recounting specific anecdotes that shed light on the American car industry's recent history and predicaments. One particularly funny story that does much to illustrate his general point of view is about properly sealing new cars. To test the quality of the seal, engineers would put a cat in a recently finished car overnight. If the cat was lethargic the next morning from lack of fresh air, the seal was good. If the cat was energetic, the seal was bad. In General Motor's cars, Lutz jokes, the cat was missing.
Although Lutz occasionally digresses into overly-political or self-centered diatribes about media bias and global warming, he does have intensely interesting things to say overall. Car Guys vs. Bean Counters succeeds in the moments that are focused on the dichotomy between the two main characters in this story. The bean counters, with their metrics-based cost-cutting corporate culture approach, are left scratching their heads as customers run screaming from the shoddy GM cars they've produced. Meanwhile, the car guys, frustrated and powerless, are tasked with trying to figure out last ditch solutions to the problems that this numbers-based approach has caused. Lutz's push, which is ultimately effective, is to put common sense solutions into practice, from the beginning to the end of the manufacturing process.
Narrator Norman Dietz is the perfect conduit for these lessons. Lutz's grandfatherly wisdom calls for a seasoned, austere tone. Dietz's performance delivers this element effortlessly.
Lutz's most salient point is to remember to keep thinking objectively, regardless of whatever story the numbers might be telling. Weird corporate metrics-focused ideology, like GM's overly analytical and complex "Culture of Excellence," is a useless deadweight that the company must drag around through a bad economy, shaky union negotiations, and a number of increasingly competitive Japanese companies.
As numbers become more and more fundamental to the general decision-making process, things get more and more absurd. One entertaining example of this is a test drive Lutz takes with a new computerized voice-recognition car, which, predictably, doesn't work at all. Lutz's common sense point: if the technology hasn't caught up to the concept, the product is doomed to fail. No matter how many focus groups or algorithms predict success, when it's a bad idea, it's just a bad idea. Gina Pensiero
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Boring and self-involved.