LeFauve told his managers that the correct structure for Saturn, or any organization, was an inverted triangle. The president resided at the bottom. The bulk of the work force - the people who created the product or the service - should be perceived as the top of the corporation, with the highest priorities.
Such out-of-the-box thinking could make life challenging for the fledgling car company. Under LeFauve's direction, Saturn started with a skeletal parts inventory system, a philosophical move intended to force suppliers to scrutinize every piece they shipped Saturn in hopes of assuring quality. "No safety net," was how LeFauve described it.
But there was a downside. The extremely lean inventory meant vehicle production halted almost every time one of Saturn's new suppliers hiccuped. Dealers sat waiting for cars as LeFauve's factory insisted that things be done correctly to protect Saturn's new brand name.
Nor was the approach foolproof. In 1990, the first year of production, as consumers and retailers clamored for cars, LeFauve received the bad news that 1,836 of the first Saturns out the door contained the wrong antifreeze formula. What defines his legacy today may have been LeFauve's decision about that first-year recall.
Rather than making repairs, LeFauve ordered all 1,836 cars to be reclaimed and crushed. Saturn then handed their owners the keys to new cars.
Newspapers and TV reports carried the news of a car company that cared enough about its customers to give away cars. Suddenly, the auto industry was throwing around words such as "integrity" and "fairness." A new era of customer service seemed to have dawned in the rough and tumble car business in which buyers got the idea they might be entitled to something more.
The recalled Saturns probably could have been repaired, LeFauve later admitted. But what message do you want to send your customer, he asked, and what message did Saturn want to send to the world?
Today, a dozen years later, LeFauve's Saturn organization looks noticeably different. Decision-making is often conducted higher in the GM organization, and Saturn operates more like a standard GM division with traditional GM practices.
But what hasn't changed is the consumer attitude LeFauve helped create in the industry - the idea that sometimes in business the unexpected is what makes the most enduring impression.