Issue: Feb 2003

Kobe's Beef

The Power of Words

by Gerry Kobe

Anyone that has ever listened to GM’s Bob Lutz speak knows what I’m talking about. Without question, Lutz is a bright guy with plenty to say, but the thing that makes him effectively bright is that he gets his message across loud and clear. He doesn’t try to come up with a fancy way to say what he’s thinking, he doesn’t necessarily try to be tactful and he’s not afraid to take a position and then live or die with it.

If he likes a design he says, “Build it.” If he hates a design he says, “It’s ugly.” And if he thinks it’s out of touch with its intended audience he says, “Nobody’s going to buy this thing.” It’s pretty basic, but everybody knows what the decision is and can get to work either building it or throwing it on the scrap heap.

Now compare that to the way a lot of today’s managers speak. Are they going to walk into a design studio and speak their minds? Definitely not. In fact, I spoke with a member of the team that was involved in the redesign of the Cavalier who shared a pretty typical story. This person told me that the first attempt at a redesign (the one that was eventually scrapped) kept getting half-hearted endorsements from everyone that looked at it because nobody wanted to say what they really thought. The design was finally shot down in flames by focus groups that rejected it in droves, but were it not for their bluntness it might be in production today.

The power of words worked against the best interest of the car and against the efficiency of the program. Instead of a simple, “It’s ugly,” I’m told that some people that reviewed it went on and on about, “how aspects of the design captured the essence of the Cavalier perfectly.”

Oh please. Somebody clearly needed to “strap on a pair” and say what needed to be said. Forget the flowery words and sensitivity training. It stunk. Now it’s dead. The sad part is that if it died sooner it would have saved development time and money.

And it’s bad enough to have rococo language when it’s time for a decision, but imagine planning vehicle development around that kind of talk. Twice in the last month I heard program management types use the phrase: “Will it resonate with the customer.” Really? Is that what a development team really wants to know? Does the car resonate? Wow, what if it resonates the wrong way? Or maybe it starts to resonate but then imperceptibly transitions to reverberating and nobody notices?

For crying out loud, what you want to know is: “Will people buy this car at the price we need to charge to make money on it?” That’s the question. And that’s the way Bob Lutz would ask the question if he sat in on your review. It clearly makes you think in a different frame of mind. It’s almost a cold slap in the face that erases the mental image of a “vibrating car” and makes you realize that automaking is a fundamental business that boils down to selling cars people like at a profit. The “say what you mean” approach is pretty basic but very effective in getting a team focused. Ask anybody that ever worked for Lutz and they’ll tell you that his orders are clear to everyone and never open for interpretation.

The “say what you mean” approach is pretty basic but very effective in getting a team focused.

Just as critical to his saying what he means is the fact that he means what he says. Trust is the reason Lutz can take such a strong position and get everyone else to follow him. If he tells you he’s going to do something it’ll go down just the way he says — no surprises. I think many of today’s managers could borrow a page from Lutz’s playbook and galvanize their teams by saying what they mean and abandoning their efforts to sound erudite. There’s nothing plain about plain talk. Success is fueled by the power of words.

 TOONING IN by John Peter
Randy Johnson won’t be in today.
He tripped over his safety award and broke his arm.”

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