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You Can't Get There From Here

Long before he sat behind the “Weekend Update” anchor desk on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, comedian Kevin Nealon was a stand-up comic. And one of his more famous routines revolved around the problems inherent in asking a stranger for directions. “Well,” Nealon would intone, “where you want to go isn’t on this map. But if it was, it would be out here,” a place just off the edge of the map. This lead to directions based on intimate knowledge of local landmarks and lore, and the occasional admonition: “But don’t turn there.”

Long before he sat behind the “Weekend Update” anchor desk on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, comedian Kevin Nealon was a stand-up comic. And one of his more famous routines revolved around the problems inherent in asking a stranger for directions. “Well,” Nealon would intone, “where you want to go isn’t on this map. But if it was, it would be out here,” a place just off the edge of the map. This lead to directions based on intimate knowledge of local landmarks and lore, and the occasional admonition: “But don’t turn there.”

Anyone watching the auto industry for any length of time understands Nealon’s shtick all too well. Ask where the industry is going, and the explanations seemingly point to a clear-cut location with an obvious–it’s always obvious, isn’t it?–way to get there. But when you ask for directions, not only isn’t the destination clearly marked, the road map looks like a visual representation of String Theory. Only, when you look closely, it’s actually a depiction of the Ball of String Theory. There are more switchbacks, crossovers, U-turns, cul de sacs, hairpins, and dead ends than in Jack Welch’s divorce negotiations. And the money involved in getting to the end is almost as great.

When times are really bad–when management has to be seen doing something, and especially when it doesn’t know what that something is–consultants come out of the woodwork like ants at a picnic. But while ants can carry many times their own weight in order to help the colony, the same can’t always be said about consultants. Or a lot of managers, for that matter. And so you get the all-too-familiar spectacle of new studies with new names, new buzz words, and new charts and graphs outlining the same old problems as the last study. Problems legions of employees already recognize, understand, and spent years trying to get management to fix. It’s almost comical.

The solution to this problem starts with the heartfelt recitation of three simple words: Screw Wall Street. Those idiot savants invest in companies they’re not qualified to run, and change directions faster and more often than a weathervane. Some of these stalwarts have been known to consult for the companies they cover–a morally dubious position at best–and one akin to expecting romance after honestly answering the question: “Do I look fat in this?” In this situation, continued success isn’t based on telling the truth. It’s based on minimizing your pain and making the numbers “add up.”

Long-term health can’t be guaranteed by a short-term focus on share price and quarterly profitability. That’s like saying, “I can drive a Ferrari, live in a mansion, eat at the finest restaurants, and there will be no repercussions as long as I keep up with the monthly payments.” Of course, this assumes there will be no bumps in the road–a long shot–and that there is no future to plan for. But there always is, and the future requires both thought and sacrifice to reach.

The one question no one in this industry is willing to answer is: “What is the final destination?” You might ask: “Is it profitability?” No. Unless you’re an Enron or WorldCom auditor, or a member of the Congressional Budget Office, no one can manufacture profits. Profits–and losses, for that matter–are the result of an activity, not something you create. “Is it stability?” Wrong again. “Growth?” Sorry, that’s a goal. “Is it increased market share?” Absolutely not. “Ok, how about customer satisfaction?” Enough! The final destination is a moving target. It is to meet the needs and desires of a distinct segment of the market and build the finest vehicles possible for it in the most efficient and flexible manner possible. Does such a place exist? You bet. Only it’s not on this map. 

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