As someone who started his career in the auto industry, I’m excited to be interviewing a modern auto-industry legend on Friday for an upcoming podcast — Bob Lutz, the retired former Vice Chairman of General Motors. We’ll be talking about his new book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business (Google Books preview).
I’ve generally been a fan – of his passion for designing and designing great cars and his iconoclastic spirit (I mean, the guy flies fighter jets for fun). I saw Lutz give an amazing talk at the Harvard Business School in the late 90s (when I was able to come over as a guest with some classmates from MIT). I don’t recall the details of his talk, but he had an audience full of potential bean counters (and I considered myself a “car guy”). Let’s look at some of things we could talk about on Friday – and give me your input.
I’m going to share some recent articles and a video interview he did with the WSJ. I don’t agree with everything he says, especially his criticisms of participative management and the “total quality excellence” consultants of the late 1980s (see the free WSJ video below). He’s a complicated figure, perhaps. I respect the man greatly, but he’s not a “Lean management” guy. At age 79, he seems like he might be stuck in some old-school management ways.
Now, one thing I am trying to figure out is how to approach this interview. The easy thing would be to tee him up to tell a few colorful stories and promote his book. That would get me listeners, but my podcast is a labor of love, not a business where I have the financial pressures of, say, CNN. I was criticized (I think) in one blog comment after my interview of Mike George, namely that I hadn’t challenged him enough on statements that I likely disagreed with.
So, Bob’s book argues that car companies should be run by “car guys.” I brought him up in the context of the recent discussion about whether doctors should be running hospitals. I think I’ll ask him about whether doctors are “patient people” who should be running hospitals instead of “bean counters”?
Some recent articles about Lutz and his book:
- Life Lessons From the Car Guy (WSJ – $?)
- Japan’s Advantage and How the Cadillac Lost Its Shine (WSJ -$?)
- Former GM Product Boss Skewers Management And Business Schools (free)
- Driven off the Road by M.B.A.s (TIME – free)
Even if you’re not a WSJ subscriber, you should be able to watch this video embedded below on or this page: Bring Back the Autocratic CEO
A lot of the provocative material appears in the first four minutes.
Lutz says that Detroit got a case of “scientific management disease,” where they tried to run everything by the numbers, in the place of things like “emotion, excitement, and beauty” and other non-quantifiable things. He says “the car business is a lot like the movie business – it’s not rational.”
I like his viewpoint there. This would seem to fit with Dr. Deming’s view that not everything that’s important is quantifiable or measurable.
He adds that the late 1980s brought us “the Total Quality Excellence consultants” who emphasized “a nice, harmonious social environment , freedom from fear, respect for everyone’s opinion… don’t demean people in meetings… and it’s a noble social experiment.” Lutz mocks this approach as going home saying “we had a meeting for 8 hours” but nobody decided anything.
Deming famously talked about eliminating fear from the workplace. Lutz sort of rolls his eyes at the idea of “freedom from fear” – so is he knocking Deming without mentioning him by name (Total Quality Excellence ~= TQM = Deming?) or did he take Dr. Deming’s message the wrong way? Does Bob Lutz believe that you should demean people in meetings and not listen to everyone’s opinion? Do his criticisms of TQE/TQM extend to Lean and the Toyota Production System? How could I ask him about this is a constructive way? His comments remind me of (off base) criticisms that Lean/TPS is all about standing in circles singing Kumbaya.
Lutz says “we went too far the other way” away from autocratic management. Lutz makes his approach sound a bit more palatable in that he was “explaining why my way was correct,” rather than just dictating it. The old “bull in the woods boss, that was bad too,” says Lutz.
I’ll agree with Lutz in the idea that if you are being directive and pushing people, you at least owe it to them to explain WHY rather than just dictating things because you are the boss.
Lutz says Detroit went too far toward “participative management, permissive management, and hands off management and “the person who never tells anyone what to do,” adding “we’re simply not tough enough in the way we run our businesses.”
Here, I’m not sure if he’s talking about Lean, because participative management (of which I’d describe Lean) is neither “permissive” nor “hands off.”
If were made CEO of GM, he would have “probably made some mistakes” but he claims he would have cut wasteful administrative processes. That sounds like a lean thinker, in a way.
Lutz is right to criticize GM leaders who earlier said that “GM is in the money making business, not the car-making business” and “we’re basically a bank (GMAC) that incidentally produces cars.”
I agree with Lutz in holding up Apple’s Steve Jobs as a leader who is all about creating the best products – knowing that profits will follow.
Lutz pretty much rolled his eyes saying, “Toyota had been elevated to God-like status” – that their management was smarter, less greedy, and cared about the environment more than the American automakers. Interesting perspective. Toyota leaders aren’t perfect (nor is the company), but I think most readers here will agree they have the better management philosophy.
So, as a reader – your reactions to Lutz and his comments? What questions would you ask him if you were in my position? How should I address his comments downplaying “participative management” in favor of “autocratic management?”
Either way, it should be an interesting discussion. I’m interviewing him on Friday and will get the podcast out next week.
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