What does it take to inspire people and defeat a bean-counting corporate bureaucracy? An autocrat in the boardroom with an allergy to consensus, says former Chrysler and GM executive Bob Lutz. Here is an excerpt from an article of his published by the Wall Street Journal. To read the complete article, please click here.
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One of my favorite anecdotes about the long postwar decline of General Motors came from a senior executive in the advertising agency that served Cadillac back in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, Jim Roche was head of the division. It was time to design the annual Cadillac Christmas card, and Mr. Roche instructed the agency to find something “heartland”—down-home American, an original work from a good artist. One painting found Mr. Roche’s favor: a snowy scene with a small boy pulling a sled upon which was tied a Christmas tree. The lad’s destination was a modest cabin on a hill, with a winding road leading up to it.
Mr. Roche loved it—but wait! Where was the relevance to Cadillac? He ordered away the small boy with the sled, to be replaced by a Cadillac sedan, with the trussed tree tied to the roof. The artist was able to render the Cadillac accurately and duly pasted it over the boy with the sled. The modified card was again presented to Jim Roche, but he discovered a new flaw: The humble cabin on top of the hill was no longer a suitable destination. Why would an achiever live in a dump like that?
The agency was told to make the dwelling more appropriate for a Cadillac family, so the artist went to work again and rendered a substantial residence, which required a major expansion of the hill it sat on. A second garage was also added, since Mr. Roche felt that a single-car garage looked out of place next to a home of that size.
At the final Cadillac Annual Christmas Card Review, all were silent until Mr. Roche, staring at the now-crusty watercolor, asked in his usual soft monotone, “Are those tires approved by engineering?”
“How’s that, Mr. Roche?” came the response.
“The tire tracks in the snow. They’re very pronounced. Is that an approved snow tire?”
Mr. Roche was righteously indignant over this blatant lack of due diligence and ordered one each of the “approved” snow tires shipped to the artist, who would have the freedom to decide which snow-tire pattern would be immortalized in the Official Cadillac Christmas Card. After that modification, it was finally approved, sent to the printer and mailed out.
Can anyone begin to fathom what that card cost—the material and intellectual resources that were squandered in its tortured path to perfection? Did any recipient of the card bother to look at the tire tread imprints in the snow? Was the card with the large house, the multicar garage, the expanded hill and the Cadillac sedan more appropriate and artistically meritorious than the original boy-with-sled?
In a normal corporate culture, a senior executive would have looked the card over, checked the text (easy in those days, since “Merry Christmas” was still a politically correct wish), and said, “Sure, looks good, get ’em printed.” But not in GM’s supposed “culture of excellence,” where management had to improve on every detail, no matter how trivial.
The unfortunate thing is that Jim Roche so embodied the charisma-challenged, nitpicking, detail-focused perfectionist that in 1967 he became the chairman and CEO of GM.
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Bob Lutz held senior leadership positions at GM, BMW, Ford and Chrysler over the course of a 47-year career. From his book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, published Thursday by Portfolio, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Bob Lutz.