An Open Letter to the “Big Three” Auto Makers

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

You’ve got less than a week to come up with a plan. And here is how you could blow it. If your plan emphasizes your historical importance to the US, or treads too heavily on technical and auto manufacturing jargon, or promises great rewards without offering substance, you will fail.

Of course, you’ve been important to America. And, of course, we need to know that you have the technical capacity to handle the challenges. And, of course, you must show us that that you will be good stewards of our money. But that is not enough.

The problem is: people don’t trust you. The government is skeptical. The public doesn’t think you deserve a bailout, and the unions are not likely to believe much of what you say. You must take this lack of trust seriously.

I believe your plan must offer three things:

Demonstrates Nimble Leadership. Your plan must prove that the three companies can lead in ways in which you have never seriously led before. You need to make us believe that you can take entrenched manufacturing processes and turn them into nimble operations. In the past, you have told us that change was way too costly and would take years to implement. Remember the foot-dragging introduction of the seat belts, air bags, and quality improvement? It is that kind of ponderous thinking that we have come to expect. You’ve got to prove to us that this time is different.

The seeds of good leadership are there. NUMMI, the joint operation of GM and Toyota has been a model of good leadership and union-management cooperation for years. Saturn was a move in that same direction. The way Ford built the Taurus showed that Detroit could go head-to-head with Toyota and Honda. But sadly, those seeds never seemed to take root.

Announces the Appointment of an Auto Czar or Czarina. The plan should put forward a leader who we can trust. You don’t have time to rebuild trust with us, so you need to import it. Probably the most remembered portion of your appearance before Congress were comments made about the corporate jets you rode in on. Those short plane rides got so much attention because people are inclined to think the worst about you. We don’t think you understand just how serious this crisis is for all of us. You need a fresh face, and you need to find that person quickly. It must be someone who the American public believes can bring adult supervision to the Detroit portion of the auto industry.

Shows that You Get It. In the short term (that would be next week), show Congress that you understand what needs to be done. Let them know that you know that people don’t trust you. Introduce the czar or czarina, and let this new leaders speak for all of you to the committee. Let this person explain the plan.

I wish you (and all of us) well.