Channeling Harley -- and Bill

Dan Neil's column on the General Motors bankruptcy in the Los Angeles Times includes two paragraphs on an aspect of GM's troubles that deserves more attention:

GM also struggled with its vast and unresponsive, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. When Chairman Roger Smith -- the "Roger" in Michael Moore's skewering "Roger & Me" documentary -- attempted to streamline GM's back-of-the-house operations in the 1980s, the result was chaos.

Divisional managers openly subverted the reorganization, hiring new people and reestablishing the old chains of command until they had created a weird rump parliament inside the company. GM's capital outlays soared, while sales and quality plunged.

Bureaucratic (and union; it was a symbiotic culture) resistance is at the heart of the turnaround-skeptic persuasion. And nostalgia for the tailfin era doesn't help. But new GM management does have a chance to resuscitate the company's legacy. Alfred P. Sloan's management theories are what generations of business school professors once taught, but Harley Earl's designs were what made GM a world-renowned collection of brands.

The challenge for GM is not to attempt an environmentally and commercially futile retro strategy, but to create excitement about buying and driving cars. Significantly it was the year after Earl's retirement in 1958 that another marketing genius, William Bernbach, launched the "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen, which Advertising Age has deemed the best of the twentieth century. (See my friend Phil Patton's classic Bug for the still hard to believe story of how an upstart Jewish agency turned Hitler's pet project into an American icon.) Bureaucratic inertia needn't be all-powerful. But to overcome it, the company needs a next-generation design guru combining the flair of Earl with the outsider hipness of Bernbach for a time when refinement must replace brute horsepower.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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