DETROIT -- General Motors Co.'s recent product development shake-up reflects CEO Ed Whitacre's mantra of less bureaucracy, more accountability.
GM announced the moves more than a week ago in a memo to employees obtained by Automotive News and verified by GM. Changes include new heads of global product planning, powertrain engineering and quality, along with new vehicle line executives for groups of similar vehicle classes.
The goal is to hold lower-tier executives accountable for decision making.
"They're trusting the troops below to do the right thing and check in less often," says Jim Federico, who in the shake-up became vehicle line executive and vehicle chief engineer for global compact, small, mini and electric vehicles.
In the memo, Vice Chairman Tom Stephens said GM is reducing the number of checkups each vehicle gets from a council of lead product developers and top executives from global regions. That committee now will only review each product four times during its development. That's "about a third" fewer times than before, spokeswoman Katie McBride says.
"If we are spending less time constantly remanipulating data to go to another review, I'll have more time and more freedom so that I may be able to take a vehicle through much faster," Federico says.
George Peterson, president of the research firm AutoPacific, agrees: "You have to start about six weeks out preparing. And you have to have meetings to prepare for the meetings."
Automakers typically have five to 10 reviews of a vehicle's development, Peterson and Federico say. So GM's four checkpoints are impressive, Peterson says.
The shake-up also appears to elevate the importance of an old bugaboo -- market research -- which former product czar Bob Lutz belittled. It got in the way, he thought, of the source of great products: designers' instincts.
The now-retired vice chairman brought product planning, which includes market research, under the purview of product development.
In contrast, Whitacre has added new-product planning head Steve Carlisle to his list of direct reports, which raises questions about the role of research in product decisions.
Stephens, who retains oversight of product development, including design, engineering and purchasing, also reports directly to Whitacre.
GM declined to make Carlisle or other product development leaders available to discuss the changes.
Giving more clout to product planning may work for GM, despite undoing a Lutz-era change, Peterson says
For instance, GM's early development of OnStar gave it an early lead. But OnStar development lagged consumers' expectations and desires -- which market research might have predicted. So Ford Motor Co. has surged ahead with Sync, he says.
Sometimes, Peterson says, product developers try to control market research and only disseminate information supporting the product they want to build. Having product planning report to Whitacre could solve that problem.