'Often wrong, but never in doubt.' That's the motto of Robert Lutz, CEO of battery maker Exide Corp. Lutz, a former Chrysler Corp. vice chairman, gave three tips to engineers in a Jan. 28 breakfast address in Dearborn, Mich., kicking off the SAE Congress and Exposition. Edited excerpts follow.
The theme for this year's congress is 'Value for Our World: The Innovation Challenge.' Beyond a doubt, I cannot possibly overemphasize the value of engineering. I feel so strongly about this that in my book (Guts) I have a whole section entitled, 'Too Few Engineers and Too Many MBAs.'
I say this without intending to offend anybody with an MBA. I have one myself. I feel about it the way a lot of sailors feel about their tattoos - they got it before they knew any better.
But it is the ability to design things, to engineer things and then to produce them efficiently and reliably in great quantity that was really America's key success in winning World War II and also provides the basis for America's dominance economically in the world in the period post World War II. That is the foundation of our success. It isn't the MBAs, and worse yet, it isn't the lawyers.
As I survey the world automobile industry today, I'm more convinced than ever that it is great engineering that is going to be key in achieving success. Even though I've only been gone from Chrysler six months, you can see the radical changes that have occurred in that period of time. It has just virtually turned the picture upside down, and it doesn't look like the automotive industry is ever going to be the same as it was just a year ago.
TOO MUCH CAPACITY
Massive, massive overcapacity - a lot of it, of course, triggered by the downturn in the Asia-Pacific area. But still there's this huge overcapacity equivalent to about 80 assembly plants. In the next couple of years, it's going to have to be dealt with.
Information technology plays a bigger role than ever before. Customers are armed with better and better and more complete information. And they're getting it online, they're getting it instantaneously. At Chrysler I was once talking about the sale's department's failure to achieve their sales objectives in one particular vehicle. I said, 'Why is it?' And one of my colleagues said, 'The problem is, we're running out of stupid customers.'
You can't screw people anymore. They are no longer happy with dealers who don't provide outstanding service. They are demanding alternatives - and they're getting them.
Now we also have the possibility, of course, of future threats - Asia's financial woes washing up on our shores, or the Brazilian crisis accelerating. Whether it's a fact or not is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, consolidation of the world's automotive industries has become everybody's secret parlor game.
All the other things being equal, the creation of DaimlerChrysler alone has really changed the base of the U.S. automotive industry -and perhaps the world automotive industry - forever. The creation of this company - that and the attendant press hype - seems to have led to an almost frightening level of corporate courtship anxiety.
It's the ups and downs, I think, that make this industry the most exciting in the world. We're also creating a competitive intensity the likes of which we've never seen before.
So, what's the way out for engineers today? I've been described as an engineer for most of my career, but I'm just an unreconstructed marketing guy who happens to like cars. I really truly am only a peddler. So you have to take what I say with a huge grain of salt. My motto: Often wrong, but never in doubt.
Suggestion No 1:
Keep it simple. At a time when complexity is abundant, I think engineers should make sure that their solution and the product that they are working on truly stands for something, makes some sort of distinct, discreet contribution unlike anything anyone else has done.
Suggestion No. 2:
I would tell young engineers to have courage and convictions. If you look at my background at General Motors, BMW, Ford and Chrysler, I had some difficulty keeping jobs. So perhaps I occasionally kept talking beyond the point where you're not supposed to talk anymore, but the truth is that it is impossible to build passion into what you are doing if you aren't truly convinced of that sense of mission and are able to translate your personal passion into what you do.
Suggestion No. 3:
If you can't beat them, join them. As I note in the closing chapter of my book, it seems to me that people long ago accepted globalization in a whole bunch of industries, but not yet is everybody comfortable with the idea of globalization in the automotive world. We are now seeing the creation of companies where national boundaries become irrelevant.
SAE and the upcoming congress present unique opportunities for today's engineers to find a new common ground that's divorced from our whole preconception of automobile industries being contained within national quarters. In the final analysis, this common ground is bigger than we ever imagined. The challenge for all of us is not to get lost among the possibilities.