GM: Earn It, Don’t Win It

The headline on the front page of the November 29, 2009, Detroit Free Press: “It’s about winning. . .again.” That’s a quote from General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson.

The headline on the front page of the November 29, 2009, Detroit Free Press:

“It’s about winning. . .again.”

That’s a quote from General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson. The Free Press had had an interview with the executive last week.

Another quote in the story: “The good news is we think our product pipeline, the products we are launching today, are the best we’ve ever done and quite capable of winning head-to-head against anybody.”

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While this may be an issue of semantics, it seems to me that “winning” is the wrong word.

I suggest that it out to be about “earning,” not winning.

Yes, in the U.S. we all revere winners, whether it is the Yankees or Jimmie Johnson (who, incidentally, drives a Chevy). But despite teams like the Yankees and drivers like Johnson, typically winners are in the limelight for but a moment until they are eclipsed by other teams or individuals. And then others become the heroes.

People buy cars and trucks, mainly, because they want reliable ways to get to work, school, shopping, the doctor, whatever. Sometimes they want this is an exciting package. But by and large, it isn’t because they’re buying something from a “winning” company.

No one ever bought an Apple computer because it was “winning” in the market. There were other reasons, none of which is associated with “victory.”

General Motors executives need to come to grips with the fact that they may not be “winning. . .again.” I guess I’m not entirely sure what that means. Being the number-one vehicle manufacturer in the world may be nice, may be helpful from a supply point of view, but does that mean “winning”? If so, that’s surely not going to happen for the foreseeable future. Does “winning” mean someone buys more of your cars than the other companies’? Well, there are a number of ways of accomplishing that, but does that necessarily result in better cars? McDonalds sells more hamburgers than any other company. Does that mean they have the best hamburgers? If the only metric is McDonalds earnings, then maybe the answer is yes. But if it is about taste, your mom probably does a better job.

Much of the Free Press story focuses on cultural change within GM. But if the culture that is being created is about “winning,” then GM won’t win.

If the cultural shift is about actual, credible, viable, measurable continuous improvement, then that is where success—for the customers, for the employees, for the shareholders (i.e., the American taxpayer)—will be found.

They need to earn it, not win it.