Saturday, February 28, 2009

GM Product Development & Efficient Cars

GM Fallout?

BusinessWeek reported in its February 23 issue that Bob Lutz, the “legendary” product chief at General Motors will resign at the end of 2009. The report states that, “The thought of designing cars to meet Washington’s fuel economy rules – as opposed to consumer tastes,” drove him to retire.

This article once again reminded me one of the key reasons GM continues to suffer. The exercise about going to Congress to ask for billions in taxpayer aid and the scrutiny they have had to undergo throughout the process has seemingly not increased their humility one bit. They have lost the auto industry’s number one spot – a position they have held since 1931 – to Toyota (and appear primed to lose the number two spot to Honda in the not-to-distant future), and have apparently not learned anything through the process.

Maybe it’s me, but I fail to see how GM has been designing cars to “meet consumer tastes,” over the last several years anyway. If they had, they would not have lost the top spot to Toyota. And to think that it is only Washington – and not the consumer – who cares about higher fuel economy, shows the culture of hiding your head in the sand continues.

Besides higher quality, better fuel economy, lower costs, innovative production techniques, and a happier workforce, Toyota’s cars are more exciting than GM. And when I visited the Detroit-area last October, the high number of Toyotas and Hondas told me that Detroiters now feel the same way. When I think of “cool” cars for different age groups, I think of the Accord, Civic, Lexus, Prius, BMW 3-Series, Mini Cooper, Scion, and a few others, but can’t seem to recall any GM cars that fall into that group.

So, as GM moves into a new era of product design, they have got to increase the cool factor of their cars. Oh, and while doing that, it wouldn’t hurt to also work on the quality, reliability, cost, and fuel economy.

On another subject . . .

Does the Government Really Want Electric or Hybrid Cars?

Like many Americans over the last several years, I could not understand the seemingly complete lack of interest that the government has in assuring the success of hybrids or fully electric cars in the U.S. The Bush administration gave token tax breaks to purchasers of hybrids a few years back, but it didn’t make sense why the incentive was limited to only a small number of people who first purchase the cars.

The reason has recently become clear to me – and it will be tested as we watch how committed the Obama administration is to the development of high mileage or combustion-free automobiles.

The U.S. and state governments collect a great deal of tax revenue on sales of gasoline ($0.47/gallon for gasoline and $0.536/gallon for diesel). If we move away from gasoline engines to non-combustible engines, this huge source of revenue will dry up. Determining what will replace the fuel tax is destined to be a hotly debated and highly charged political issue – and probably one that politicians are not ready to tackle given the current state of mind of Americans.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Managing Costs Instead of Managing the Business

If there is one thing certain as a result of recent events, it is that the world of business is going to change. After a fairly long period of economic growth, companies are finding themselves in the midst of shrinking markets, increasing costs, falling profits, and a highly competitive environment. The choice for a company during these times is either to be defensive by implementing cost cutting measures, laying off employees, and shrinking in size, or go on the offensive and use the slowdown to attack problems and become more focused on innovation and improvement of products, processes, and services.

An offensive strategy is actually nothing new to business. Companies like Toyota, Samsung, Honda, Apple, and Nucor Steel have used innovation and improvement for years as a way to strengthen their abilities to compete. For a variety of reasons though, most other companies have had little success with these philosophies or rejected them altogether. Over the last few decades, American business leaders have increasingly taken the easy route and implemented cost cutting moves to deal with economic challenges; announcing the layoffs as if there was no other alternative. And recent actions have shown that the response to the current recession is magnified, but no different.

One of the biggest problems with a defensive approach is, when the recovery does begin to occur, the companies that have ‘cut to the bone’ will not be able to quickly respond to the growth. When they do finally catch up with the increased level of business, they will do so with the same level of inefficiency and waste that they have in the past. Those organizations that go on the offensive, however, will be in a much better position to take advantage of the recovery to profit and grow quickly.

As an example, the U.S. automakers have been shedding massive amounts of workers in an effort to show Congress that they are managing their costs. Unfortunately, by losing tens of thousands of workers, they are also losing the experience and knowledge that the people have in these companies’ processes and how to improve them. Those who manage to keep their jobs will likely not have the time (or the enthusiasm) to work on improving operations. It is amazing that Congress has no problem giving taxpayer money to companies that manage costs instead of managing their businesses. Rewarding organizations to layoff workers only increases the number of people who will cut back on spending, thereby increasing the length and severity of the recession. If anything, bailout money should go to those companies that choose to not lay off their workers.

One of the positives that could result from the auto bailout, however, is that the Detroit 3 may be forced to reduce the current level of outsourcing work to low cost countries and bring jobs back to the U.S. If this does happen, they will have no choice but to find ways to innovate and improve in order to compete with foreign automakers.

The Difference Between Talking and Doing

Knowing that innovation and improvement are necessary for survival and actually doing them well, however, are two different things. Continual improvement and innovation require more than training people in the latest methods and then telling them to go innovate and improve. Most organizations require a drastic cultural shift in order to enable improvement to take hold and become a part of the way the company operates.

There are unfortunately very few people in business who truly understand that lean manufacturing and kaizen are business philosophies rather than sets of tools to reduce waste. Managers read about the success of the Toyota Production System and rush to copy the tools instead of looking deeper at the company to comprehend how the system was developed and why it works.

It’s In The Culture

Changing a company’s culture is a complicated process because of the psychological and sociological issues – both of which are rarely taught in any depth in business schools. When you startup a company and are the only employee, culture is not an issue. As soon as you add one person, though, the culture gets more complex and the complexity grows exponentially as more people are added.

So how can an organization’s leader change the culture to make it more likely to succeed with improvement initiatives? In effect, we need to rewire western organizations in order to continually identify and remove the barriers to improvement. And, just like changing a personal habit, once a barrier is removed, it must continue to be watched to make sure it stays removed.

There is an organized way to approach the cultural aspects of improvement. The key is for the leader to be serious about the need for improvement, and understand that it will require work on the indirect or softer issues in an organization. A leader who writes off psychology and/or sociology as too theoretical and not practical has little chance of implementing a change initiative of this magnitude.

The Necessary Elements

The elements that are necessary for initiatives like lean, six sigma, or kaizen to be successful in achieving sustained levels of improvement are listed below. Assuring that these components exist within the organization requires constant effort to prevent returning to old patterns and behaviors. You must continually strengthen and develop the elements until they get to the point where they build on themselves.

None of these elements are new to the world of business. They have been written about in one way or another for many years. Unfortunately, many leaders both don’t believe in their importance or find them to be too much work and abandoned or ignore them. It is common to write these issues off as too theoretical because they are not easy to manage. In reality, however, those companies that have been successful with improvement and innovation have spent considerable effort to align their cultures with their visions, thereby setting up the organization to succeed.

In no particular order, the items that require continual reflection and focus include the following:

  • Clear Purpose An understanding of why the organization exists and what its future holds;

  • Consistent Values A clear understanding of the team DNA and screening new hires to assure they share the same values;

  • Enthusiasm for improvement People within the organization need to be obsessed with improvement and possess the humility to realize that there is always a better way of doing things;

  • Openness A culture where people feel comfortable telling management when decisions and actions conflict with the purpose and/or values;

  • Trust Workers must trust that nobody will lose their job as a result of the improvements made. Also, management must trust in the knowledge, experience and intelligence of workers;

  • Focus on People/Processes/Customers More attention must be given to people, customers and processes than spreadsheets and financial reports;

  • Training & Development of People and Teams Training and developing of team members must be a high priority within the organization. Leaders need to be developed from inside the company rather than hiring in from the outside;

  • Pride Throughout the Organization People must be proud to be associated with the company and truly care about its success;

  • Understanding Internal Customers/Suppliers Everyone must clearly understand their role in the company, including whom they serve and what these people need. Whatever the company provides its customers defines its main processes (whether it is a product or service). Anyone who is not directly involved in a main process is in a support role and his or her purpose is to serve those who are directly involved;

  • Walking the Talk Improvement initiatives require attention, commitment, and involvement of executive managers;

  • Aligned Measurement & Reward Systems Reward systems must support improvement initiatives. This requires rewarding teams instead of individuals, and tying promotions to success, enthusiasm and commitment to improvement and change initiatives;

  • Proper Organizational Alignment The process focus required for improvement initiatives is difficult to achieve within a traditional functional organizational structure;

  • Clear Objectives Without close alignment to organizational objectives,
    improvement projects will be fragmented and have very little chance of succeeding;

  • Patience Changing culture takes time. People tend to want change to happen rather quickly, but in most organizations, it just doesn’t happen,

People tend to be much more open to change during a recession than at any other time. The willingness to try new things and not be looked at as standing in the way of change increases dramatically when people are worried about their jobs and the jobs of their coworkers. In other words, if you are a leader and ready to implement lean manufacturing, kaizen, or any type of improvement initiative, your chances of success may never be higher.