Monday, April 30, 2007

GM opens up to a fresh way of doing things

Friday, April 27, 2007
New ideas wanted
GM opens up to a fresh way of doing things
Sharon Terlep / The Detroit

Texan Ross Perot, during his brief stint on General Motors Corp.'s board of directors, once described the automaker as "isolated and insulated" from the American driving public.

Nearly two decades later, amid a massive overhaul at the world's largest automaker, signs are starting to emerge that GM is shedding that top-down, out-of-touch style of management.

Jolted into action by unprecedented market share declines and billions of dollars in losses, GM is taking a more fluid and open approach to doing business in an industry it once ruled.

Twenty-something hipsters in the company are getting called on to help make critical decisions.

Design teams have new freedom to whip up vehicles with no advance approval from the top.

And, in a first for GM, the public could have final say in picking a new vehicle to be sold around the world.

"The company that I hired into no longer exists -- which is a good thing," said John Manoogian, design director for Cadillac, who started his GM career 30 years ago in the now-defunct Oldsmobile division. "There's a new sense of where we are and what we have to go to. We have senior managers saying, 'You guys show us what you can do.' "

With its supremacy over the world auto industry ending as foreign rivals get stronger and international markets grow in influence, GM's situation may have gotten dire enough to spur some actual change in that way of thinking.

Some of this is evident in the attitude of upper management toward the lower rungs. People are more able to give suggestions and question company strategy.

On a public level, GM is reaching out more for input, even putting a decision on producting a concept vehicle up to a vote.

"This is a team game, and to get the team functioning at its most efficient level, you have to have all the players playing to their strengths," GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said this month before unveiling a set of new concepts for mini-cars. At a loss for which vehicle should debut at the New York Auto Show, GM decided to show all three and then let the public vote on which should see production.

"If that means a great idea is born in one spot and develops into reality somewhere else," Lutz said. "So be it."

Shift emerges to public

The change has been gradual. Some say it started nearly a decade ago, when GM adopted a team approach to vehicle development that has people from various departments coming together to make important decisions. That was a shift from when managers would send orders down the ranks.

For several years now, particularly since Lutz took on the role of product czar in 2001, designers at GM have talked about feeling more valued and empowered.

But it's been only recently that the shift in thinking has begun to trickle down into GM's public face -- its products, marketing and ads.

"There's a lot less Detroit tunnel vision than there used to be at GM," said David Healy, a Burnham Securities auto analyst. "You can see it in the new models that are coming out. And that's what's important."

Designers set free

Case in point is a new set of vehicles set to debut next year at the Detroit Auto Show.

The ideas for the vehicles -- which GM won't discuss-- emerged from a small team of designers over at Cadillac.

Historically, designers get directions to make vehicles based on a market need or hole in GM's product lineup. In this case, the team branched out and came up with some clay models of vehicles they thought GM should build.

Soon after the models were done, the designers got word that Lutz and CEO Rick Wagoner were coming down to the Warren design center to see them.

"We brought them out on the patio, and they just said, 'Hey, let's do this,' " Manoogian said. "For me that was the epiphany -- when the light bulb went on that we were doing things differently."

Mike Jackson, vice president of advertizing and marketing, said the new culture has infused energy throughout GM.

"We're particularly proud of our new products," he said. "There's a lot of confidence here."

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