I’ve been doing a lot of catch up reading of auto industry classics I should have read ages ago. I finished David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning” a couple of days ago. It’s a superb in-depth look at the key forces that were reshaping the car industry in the post-war era, focusing on Nissan and Ford. Lots of insight into the culture of Ford, and a better appreciation of Lee Iacocca, including his positive qualities.
Now I’m reading Maryann Keller’s “Rude Awakening” about the travails of GM during the Roger Smith era in the ’80s. I will share more tidbits later, but I just hit a quote by Lee Iacocca about Smith’s plans for Saturn that I had to share right now, as it’s such a gem.
“By 1985, the Saturn project had become a giant media event, propelled by a steady stream of tantalizing announcements from Roger Smith’s office. Even Lee Iaccoca, a master at creating the big media splash, expressed grudging admiration and admitted “I was envious. Not because I thought the car was great, but because as a huckster I hadn’t thought of the PR scam first.“
Wow. There is so much in that short quote that could be unpacked. Not only does it perfectly sum up what Saturn really was (as well as Iacocca’s insatiable ego) but it gives so much insight into the mentality of Detroit’s CEOs. It was always about them, the press, their egos, their bonuses, the sloganeering and the endless empty promises.
This is so utterly blatantly in contrast to the Japanese way, which emphasizes genuine teamwork and a 100% commitment from the CEO to the line worker to share in the process of designing, engineering and building quality cars as the solution to a lasting success that would then be shared by all: the workers as well as society at large.
Ironically, Smith initiated the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota precisely because he wanted to find out what the Japanese secret sauce was. He thought it had to be some new technology. Not at all. Their plant equipment was largely actually rather old-fashioned. It was just an utter commitment to create a teamwork approach and inculcate trust and risk-taking across the board. Not surprisingly, Smith (and most of the rest of the GM execs) didn’t get it, and instead went on a high-tech binge to try to out do Toyota with robots and Saturn. We all know how that turned out.