Dudder: There Are No Stupid Questions

Columns From: 10/1/2007 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

Unfortunately, they either don’t get asked, or they are brushed aside. When that happens, mayhem often results.

The next time you are sitting in a meeting wondering how a program got this far down the wrong road, remember these examples. And then ask the question that puts the problem in the proper light. If you don’t you might be amazed at the level to which the ridiculousness rises, and find yourself searching for a job when your company tanks.

Example 1: A good friend took a position writing the media kit for a major automaker’s latest mid-size SUV. Not only did that put him in contact with the engineers and designers on this project, it put him across the table with the guy in charge of marketing this vehicle. “I’m sitting across from this ___ [using his actual word would be unsuitable for this magazine], and he starts pontificating about how well his team knows the buyer. She’s this, she’s that, she shops here and expects this level of service,” he says before closing in on the punch line. “Not only does this virtual female buyer have a name,” my friend recounts, “the ___ proudly announces: ‘We know her so well, we even know how she voted in the last school board election!’ Yeah, like anyone who’s real can remember how they voted!,” he says with a smile. “And all the time he’s spouting his self-congratulatory rhetoric, I’m thinking: ‘And yet you plan on having rebates on this vehicle. If you “know” the buyers as well as you claim, they shouldn’t sit on the lot for more than a couple of days.’ Truly pathetic.” Indeed, and truly amazing.

Example 2: Two executives are on the fast-track at an American OEM in the later 1950s/early 1960s. One is a mechanical engineer with a strong sense that the product—and how well it is built—matter a great deal to the customer. To his way of thinking, if you satisfy the buying public’s desire for reliable, stylish, innovative products the company’s long-term prospects are assured. Ignore them, and the buyer will search out alternatives over time, possibly never to return. The other executive, however, is also an engineer, but he has completed the mandatory MBA program for rising talent. Newly enlightened, he scours the landscape for savings, alighting on the idea of eliminating preventative maintenance, especially on the stamping dies, and repairing things only when necessary. By his calculations, this will save the company a whopping, for the time, $4-million per plant per year. That’s real money, and it goes straight to the bottom line. Wall Street is happy, shareholders get fatter dividends, and the top brass gets its bonuses increased. Guess which one got the promotion? Better yet, guess which one later gets to fix the mistakes this enlightened gentleman put in motion? Yep, the first engineer with the long-term outlook.

Example 3: The domestic automakers are, by no means, the only ones with this problem. Take the import maker that pulled an all-aluminum subframe design from one car, and placed it on another in a lower price class. It worked like a charm, but added unnecessary cost to what was an everyday family car. Had the program been a little longer—or had management listened when told you can’t just switch overnight from a beam axle to an independent design—things might have been different. However, this cost delta was large enough to force a cost-reduction exercise that put steel in close contact with aluminum. The galvanic reaction was enough to cause major headaches for everyone down the line. And the boss who made this decision? You guessed it, he’s still in command.

Rampant stupidity is nothing new in—or unique to—the auto industry. However, abandoning the process to the naysayers isn’t any better. In fact, it is a recipe for stagnation. The answer can’t be found in software, though there are many areas where electronic oversight—whether through design rules, material comparisons, etc.—would prevent a lot of tears from being shed later on. In others, simple risk analysis will keep the more egregious mistakes from getting out the door, and also point to areas where new technologies and processes will reap effective gains. Yet nothing—nothing—will replace the simple question asked at the right time. Clarification has an amazing ability to point out the weaknesses in an idea or plan, but only if honest dialog is permitted. In each of the above cases it wasn’t, and the trains chugged over the cliff with unabated speed. Mom was right, there are no stupid questions. What she never told you, however, was that there are a lot of stupid people brushing them aside or preventing them from being asked.