This topic was thoroughly handled by Bob Lutz in his books, "Guts" and "Bean Counters vs. Car Guys.
To some degree Alfred Sloan is at fault by structuring GM in such a compartmentalized way that the compartments got to battle each other.
But let me back up for a second and describe my education so that you will know whether or not I know what I'm saying. I went to GMI for slightly longer than 2 years before I left in disillusion and disgust at the age of 20, I was sponsored by Car Development at the Corporate Engineering Staff at the Tech Center. I studied at Arts and Crafts in Detroit and then switched to Michigan in Design School and then switched into Architcture and carried the school flag at commencement in the "Big House" in 1964 and read the Great Society speech over LBJ's right shoulder. With further studies in Urban Planning I have some 9 years of collegiate studies, never chasing degrees but after courses of specific interest to me. I passed the State Boards as an Architect which was enough for me. Few people have as broad an experience.
I also personally knew George Carramagna who Ralph Nader built his future upon. George to me was a great American hero and it was a clear case of the Bean Counters becoming absolutely evil in their quest and this precipitated the government developing enormous codes so that the Engineers had to operate within restrictions just as we Architects have had to do for years and years.
And let me say that I take deep umbrage at any notion that Detroit products are unworthy or worse. That is sheer popycock nonsense. The Volt and the Converj are some of the finest automobiles ever designed in the long history of the Automobile. And the fact that the Cruze became #1 is a direct tribute to Bob Lutz. At 42 MPG for the ECO model it's about as good as it gets for a "standard" vehicle.
I have had Hondas and Fiats that rusted out and a series of wonderful vehicles from Chrysler when Lutz was there. NO PROBLEMS except theft.
I have written for altenergy.mag for several years and have enjoyed it. I tend to think that my article on the Automotive X-Prize was one of the best and that my article on VIA is very insightful and Lutz wanted a brief engineering report.
I also tend to love EE's, one of my clients, Pierre Heftler, the Ford Family Attorney had a Masters Degree in EE and you would have been amazed to see him operate.
In the mid 60's I set about to be the Systems Analyist in one of Detroit's largest Architectural Firms and after developing the logic diagrams for the Electrical systems the Electrical Engineer told me that it was worth a PhD in EE and that if I did it for all the Departments it would be a super duper PhD. I did, but of course did not get the Phd in SD. BTW there are 21 systems in every architectural project and I's submeit that it's pretty much the same for an automobile. I'm talking specifically and not in florid generalities.
But I did schedule a 600,000sf Medical School for SUNY Stonybrook that had to open it's doors within 9 months from us receiving the program and first seeing the wooded and rolling site. BTW that's 11 football fields worth of building to help you with scale. It worked.
But back to the main thesis... Lynn Townsend ran Chrysler into the ground. He was an arrogant acountant by training and knew nothing about Automobiles.
One of my GMI fraternity brothers showed up in time magazine as being one of the great professors at Harvard teaching the "Killer Instinct" to his MBA students. Well, they did get the message that they were Gods Gift and they had absolutely no problem asserting themselves, else you might get killed.
Money became the God and lots of people did quite well foloowing that line of thinking. I'll even bet that W took his course and assumed the mantle.
So back to Bob. He outlines how he had to do battle at GM and Ford and how he got BMW going properly.
He did, and he even had to go to lengths to tighten the tolerances and get the seams lined up at GM
So I'd have to say that the Auto Industry owes a great debt to Bob because he knew exactly what had to be done and he got it done.
And he commented at a book signing that this is about his 42 years of frustration in the Auto Industry.
Asolutely it goes back to manageent not knowing what Design is or does or comprises and the same for Engineering.
Costing out the sway bar was as unconscionable as it gets. Attacking the whistle blower was as low as it got.
So having gone through all this I do think that a major transformation has ocurred and see absolutey no reason at all as to why any American really need look elsewhere.
Failed free market? The auto industry hasn't operated in a free market in decades. If it did I might be driving a diesel car getting 100 mpg burning fuel made from garbage squeezings. Regulation stifles innovation.
I know that this comment doesn't fit neatly under this article's topic, but I'm going to gripe anyway. My 1984 Honda CRX got better gas mileage than any cars built today. It got between 45 and 50 local and 58 to 61 on the highway and it had a kludge carburetor setup. We're past peak oil, and the car companies can't produce far better mileage with today's far more sophisticated technology? Come on!
Whining about "quality" continues to miss the bigger problem, that we are wasting resources that carry very heavy consequences. But as most Americans don't believe in anything other than failed free market ideology, I suppose the fact that today's cars are worse performers than a 1984 design doesn't matter in their minds. After all, CEOs drive teir engineers to meet customer demand and customers only complain about high gas prices because they're clueless.
@Dave Palmer >A Chinese friend of mine, who is a philosophy professor, says that Western cultures tend to be reductionist, while Asian cultures tend to be holistic.<
Based on this article, that certainly seems to apply in the automakers culture. But I believe that tendency is more pronounced in the medical viewpoint than anywhere else.
My wife recently had her gall bladder and then her appendix removed within a span of a few months. I told her that something her system isn't working right, but who do you go to see about your body as a system in our standard medical community? She ended up going to an accupuncturist who told her that her liver is overloaded and out of sync. She's been working to clean out her liver and many of the symptoms she's had for several years, that our regular doctors have had difficulty finding the root cause to, have begun to disappear. The accupuncturist was able to tell my wife the symptoms she had been experiencing several years ago, and why she was having them, in less than an hour. My wife had been going to doctors about those same problems for years, with the result that later on the "bad parts" were removed.
@williamweaver - I believe you nailed it that the magic happens when we can view a problem from both aspects, both reductionist and holistic. Unfortunatley, I think the Western mindset has a long ways to go before the acceptance of a holistic approach is commonplace. Although the world is changing ever faster...
While many of the posts are very analytical in nature, I would add one observation, which I'm not injecting in a flippant manner. When one drives down the street, on the boulevard, or the highway, or the interstate, and one observes the autos in the adjoining lanes, what does one see? They see a lot of American vehicles that aren't the latest off the showroom floor. Yet, in your observations, how many vaunted Mercedes Benz or BMW vehicles of 5 or 10 or more years past do you count? Certainly nowhere near the number of 5 or 10 year old Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges, Plymouths, etc.
While my analysis may not be a classic statistical study, it sure does prove a point........ American vehicles ain't as bad as some of the pundits would have us believe!
Naperlou, I agree that the differences in reliability are not all that great. Ovr the past 20 years, all automakers have improved. Twenty years ago, you could expect a vehicle to go 100,000 miles or maybe 120,000. Now I have two cars that have more than 160,000 miles on them. Now if they could only close the gap between bottom and top.
@Dave Palmer, wise council. I'm often surprised by the reliance on reductionism here in the West. Perhaps it is my terminal degree in Analytical Chemistry that has taken me to the bleeding-edge of analysis so that I can appreciate the importance of system integration. There is often no better zealot for a cause than a convert, and I've been evangelizing Systems Thinking for some time. There is an amazing dichotomy in our culture. Those who can see Similarities among items that appear Different have a "Scientific" talent, while those who can see Differences among items that appear Similar have an "Artistic" bent. Scientists dissect to generate additional parts, while Artists integrate to create fewer wholes. We have a strong scientific / technical reputation here in the West, yet we are often also seen as being a hub of Artistic talent with Hollywood, Broadway, and Silicon Valley.
The magic happens when the Analyst and the Systems Integrator are talents that are developed within the same person, or at least the same team. Knowing when to view a problem from each reference frame is a valuable tool. I totally agree with your suggestion that optimizing the strength of a single part simply transfers stress to surrounding parts, which in turn, fail. It's amazing how the Systems View can be used for all manner of systems; mechanical, electrical, biological, and philosophical.
Ironically, the process of Systems Thinking has been Analyzed into its parts in an attempt to standardize and optimize it within the Business Schools. All of their proprietary terminology and paradigms have made it appear specialized, wonky, and niche. Perhaps if the Scientists and Engineers rescue Systems Thinking from the MBAs, it would have a better chance to gain popularity...
@williamlweaver: Great comments on the importance of systems thinking. In failure analysis, there's a tendency to focus on the part which failed, rather than the mechanical system which it belongs to. People tend to ask, "What's wrong with this part?" rather than, "How was this part loaded?"
As a metallurgist, people often send me a broken part in a box and expect me to tell them why it failed. Sometimes, I might be able to find something (such low hardness or microstructural defects) which would tend to make the part more likely to break. But without understanding the application, I can't tell them why it broke. Finding a defect in a part is not the same as finding the root cause of a failure.
A consequence of this, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that the knee-jerk response to a part failure is to make the part stronger. This often results in a failure occurring somewhere else in the system, so the next part to break is also made stronger, and so on. Ultimately, it results in designs which are unnecessarily heavy and expensive, while underlying root causes are never addressed.
A Chinese friend of mine, who is a philosophy professor, says that Western cultures tend to be reductionist, while Asian cultures tend to be holistic. I think that reductionism (breaking things down into their simplest parts) is actually an incredibly powerful tool, but it needs to be complemented with a holistic (or systems) view.
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