Marginal: High Performance

The line between success and failure is, in some cases, a red line.

The photograph on the cover of this issue is of a disassembled LS9 engine.

The photograph on the cover of this issue is of a disassembled LS9 engine. Once under the hood of a 2009 Corvette ZR1, this +620-hp supercharged 6.2-liter engine is able to provide head-snapping performance. The words "warp drive" come to mind: Vrrrrroooommmmmm . . . The development of the vehicle and engine occurred when GM CEO Rick Wagoner began to wonder what a $100,000 'Vette would be like. So a cadre of engineers went to work, making that speculation real. And according to Tom Stephens, head of GM Powertrain, this 'Vette will be capable of ripping the doors off all of those snooty supercars out there. Think of it: 100 hp per liter for what is, comparatively speaking, a Chevy price. As for the powertrain, Stephens and his team started with the venerable-note well that it is more than 50 years old-small-block architecture, and then added engineering magic. (And it is worth pointing out that Stephens says, "The small-block V8 once again demonstrates its boundless horsepower potential, versatile design and an architecture with proven quality, durability, and reliability. We haven't yet realized the small block's performance potential." Clearly, there's more to come.)

A lesson here is not specifically about the fastest production vehicle that GM has ever produced. Rather, it is that given creative engineering, dedication, and capability, remarkable achievements can be realized. Faced with a task like creating the engine that became the LS9, some people might opt for a clean sheet. And on the clean sheet the result might be a big block and more cylinders. This might have readily fulfilled the horsepower and torque requirements, but it would be surprising if it would fulfill what are undoubtedly price-point requirements. In the case of the engine developed by GM Powertrain staff, imagination and engineering made the difference, not additional bores, longer shafts, etc.

This is not about high-performance engines. It is about high performance in what each of us does for a living. Powertrains or PowerPoints. The conventional approach to anything will no longer cut it. Period. Consider the phenomenal forces that are affecting the industry right now. Arguably, these forces have been at play for years, but now it seems as though they can be no longer ignored, absorbed, or otherwise accommodated. Chrysler execs are cutting the number of models offered and working to reduce the number of dealers selling their vehicles-both which indicate a smaller company. Ford is continuing to downsize, and its "One Ford" initiative is undoubtedly going to mean bringing in more products like the Transit Connect-not necessarily like it in configuration, but like it in that it was engineered in Europe and is being produced in Turkey. GM has been working all of these levers for some time now, and there are likely to be even more changes in the works (e.g., how long will it maintain as many brands as it currently has in the U.S. market?). All of this has repercussions not only within the named organizations, but to all of the suppliers to those companies-and to the suppliers' suppliers. Competing on price-as in low price-is not going to cut it, because there is always someone who is ready to cut their cost, especially as Chinese companies seem willing and (quasi) able to supply what's being sought (let's not too soon forget the lead in the toys and the poison in the dog food).

That is going to make the difference between success and failure-really, anything less than success is to be on a downward slope-is going to be creativity and imagination in serving the needs of customers in a way that others simply can't. It is going to be a matter of deploying people in a way that is not the norm-that is, by deploying them in a way such that they are able to do things that exceed typical expectations, just as creating a +620-hp engine for a Chevy Corvette is beyond what would be ordinarily created. To be sure, GM only needs a handful of those engines-but can you imagine what a boost it provides not only to those who worked on the engine, but to others in the organization who realize that that is the sort of thing that can be done? Don't you think that those who are on programs that are more, well, ordinary, are going to work so that they, too, can exceed, so that they, too, can create something that will make people talk about what they've done? I'd bet on it.

Companies that inspire their people, that allow the creation of the extraordinary, are the ones that we'll be talking about for some time to come-and we'll be talking about them in the present tense, not as companies that once were. Performance doesn't simply matter. It is everything. 

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