Time to re-engineer the job of product development chief

GM product chief Mark Reuss with the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

With automakers facing financial pressure on many fronts -- Wall Street, trade and tariff issues, slowing sales, intense competition -- the product development chief's job has never been more important.

And that's why it is time for the role to be re-examined at General Motors, Ford and maybe elsewhere.

Last week's news that GM is halting some nonessential construction projects as it slims its work force to cut costs and pad cash reserves didn't mention product development. But trust me, Mark Reuss, GM's product development boss, and his counterparts at Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and elsewhere are feeling the heat.

They know that every product from this day forward has to be a home run right out of the box. The drain on resources to fund self-driving vehicles and electrification means that every vehicle in every major automaker's lineup has to pay its own way -- make money -- or it won't live.

There can't be any more product development failures such as Ford's PowerShift transmissions. The troubled dry-clutch automated manual gearbox,used in the Focus and Fiesta probably did more to hurt Ford's quality rankings and drive car buyers to competitors than any other component in the last 10 years.

At GM, there can't be any more safe base hits with key products such as the retooled Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, which have generated some scathing media reviews -- unusual for a new-from-the-wheels-up pickup from the Detroit 3. Or the redesigned Camaro, which has been getting trounced by the Ford Mustang. Why didn't someone at GM raise their hand and say: "I can't see out of the rear if this damn thing?" Or the Cadillac XT4, a mess of a small crossover that is not even class competitive.

For FCA to kill the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 after just three years each was a multibillion dollar boondoggle that should have never happened. Sure, car sales are tough now, but it didn't help that the Dart and 200 suffered from design and drivetrain problems that made the cars nearly unsalable.

The job of product development chief at a global automaker is a 24/7 affair that requires a brain surgeon's focus to get every part of every vehicle right. Because if one part isn't right -- say the interior of the new Silverado -- the company suffers. In the Silverado's case, it means GM treads water for another generation of trucks.

Isn't it ironic that the better a product development chief is at keeping engineering teams focused on delivering excellent products, the more responsibilities he or she is given that take attention away from delivering world-class vehicles?

At GM, Reuss' duties are so voluminous, they don't even fit into one paragraph. His corporate biography reads:

"Reuss is responsible for leading the company's Global Design, Engineering, Safety, Quality, Research and Development, Advanced Vehicle Technology, Purchasing and Supply Chain organization, as well as the Product Planning and Program Management of General Motors cars, trucks and crossovers around the world.

"He is also responsible for complete alignment between product development and the Cadillac brand as a new vehicle is introduced every six months through 2020 on an accelerated product and technology launch cadence, which is critical for the brand's future growth and global success."

But there's more. GM Defense is a new business. Guess who's leading it? Reuss. GM has roughly 38 vehicles in its North American lineup for which he's responsible, and more globally. How can one man, no matter how hard he works, how organized and how many hours a day he puts in, do all those jobs at the high level required for success in today's industry?

News flash to GM CEO Mary Barra and President Dan Ammann: This is flat out bad management. You've taken the best product development chief in the business and loaded his plate with so many jobs that no human being could do them all with the laserlike focus required to compete and win. There are not enough hours in the day to manage all those tasks. And even if there were, work-life balance would be skewed too far in the wrong direction.

Ford, at least, has taken steps to lighten the load of its product development boss, Hau Thai-Tang, from previous executives who held that job. Thai-Tang's corporate responsibilities, though, are still immense: " … He is globally responsible for overseeing all aspects of the company's design, engineering, research and product development, as well as purchasing operations."

At FCA, Philip Jansen is head of product development, and that is all he does. FCA says, "Jansen has responsibility for all systems and component engineering, vehicle line programs, advance vehicle development, vehicle integration and validation, along with cost engineering."

If we look at who's been executing well lately, I'd say FCA has done better than its local rivals. The Chrysler Pacifica, Jeep Wrangler, and especially the new Ram truck, are the kinds of home runs that it takes to win in this tough environment.

Here's my suggestion for GM, Ford and any other automaker where the product development chief's job has splintered into many areas: Make the product development position second only to the CEO on the organizational chart. Empower the product development executive to spend 100 percent of his or her time fine-tuning, polishing, honing and perfecting every aspect of every vehicle.

The product development chief should be seen in public in Detroit driving and evaluating competitive vehicles. He or she should know through first-hand, hands-on experience as much about competitive vehicles as they do their own. He or she is the company's official final gatekeeper on all products, the one who spends nearly all their time in the driver's seat, in the passenger seat and in the back seat, with the engineers and designers, with infotainment engineers, and yes, even the accountant, pushing them to make improvements.

Good enough won't get it in this capital-intensive industry filled with hungry, aggressive competitors, uncontrollable political issues and a rapidly shifting business model. The time has come to streamline the product development chief's job to ensure that the very best an automaker can do reaches the marketplace.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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