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Lean Forward

How do you approach what it is that you do? Are you actively engaged or just sorta doing it?

MSNBC has been running promotional spots for its programming that includes the slogan "Lean Forward." They're probably using that direction because an ideologically precise instruction would be "Lean Left," and that wouldn't be particularly PC. But be that as it may, whether you're a viewer of that channel or Fox, the "Lean Forward" phrase is a good one. And it is something that all of us should do in 2011.

We should work to get ahead of issues and concerns, to be as close to the leading edge as is uncomfortably possible. Uncomfortably? Yes. Because if we stay comfortable, we are not going to gain sufficient forward momentum. Consequently, those who Lean Forward will leave us in their wake, and with time we will get further and further behind. We may be comfortable. For a while. And then reality kicks in and comfort is something that we only remember.

One company that didn't Lean Forward was General Motors. This was largely predicated on management that figured that because the company was the biggest it was the best. And because it was the best, they knew best. They knew what was good for the customers, better than anyone else because GM was the biggest. And so this vicious circle of thinking spiraled around and around and the executives remained isolated in comfort. Sure, every now and then there was a problem—be it having something to do with an oil shortage or a work stoppage—but the problems were always, more or less, resolved.

But then we know what happened. While the bankruptcy was a consequence of what was arguably an economic "perfect storm" predicated on the financial implosion and increasing gas prices, given that its primary home-town competitor, Ford, managed – and the word managed should be recognized in terms of the company's management, the actions that they took – to avoid a filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York says something about the posture of the GM execs of that time and of many who preceded them.

You can't Lean Forward when you're resting on your heels. No matter how well-heeled you may think you are.

What is encouraging vis-a-vis GM is that the company has visibly changed its posture, adjusted to a more forward direction. This became increasingly clear to me while attending a holiday party that the company held at the GM Heritage Center. The Center is an 81,000-ft2 facility in an industrial park in Sterling Heights, Michigan, that includes a collection of some 600 GM vehicles, of which 200 are typically on display. I had heard a rumor during GM's financial crunch time that the corporation had sold off the collection. I was delighted to see that that isn't the case. A company's heritage should be a part of its on-going existence, but it shouldn't be considered to be prelude to a completely different present and future.

Anyway, while standing at a table with a few colleagues, Stephen Girksy, GM vice chairman, corporate strategy and business development, walked up and a somewhat spirited discussion ensued. Girsky said that one of the things that they're now doing at GM is proactively working to get ahead of the game. For example, he said that rather than dragging their heels when it comes to things like increased fuel-efficiency standards, they are seeing what technology they have on the shelf that can help them meet their needs, then working to deploy it. Through other comments he made it became exceedingly clear that GM is a much different place, an organization that is driving forward, not resting on laurels that it once thought it had. Evidently, Samuel Johnson's observation that the prospect of a man's hanging "concentrates his mind wonderfully" has the same effect on organizations.

Words are easy. Deeds are what get done. So it remains to be seen whether there is more than rhetoric involved here. With vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the Buick Regal, things are encouraging as regards GM going forward. But again, temporary posturing is not sufficient for success.

Organizations – and individuals – should not have to get to the point of imminent demise before they take action. Action should be the default, not the exception. Otherwise, oblivion is likely to be the outcome.

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