I’ve recently read a couple of great books that I think should be required reading for anyone working in the manufacturing or engineering world. One of these is Car Guys versus Bean Counters by Bob Lutz, a book I featured a few weeks ago in the California Scooter blog (it’s a blog I write for CSC Motorcycles, one of my clients). With your permission, I’ll repeat part of that blog entry here. The other book is The Gun, by C.J. Chivers. I’ll get to that one a few paragraphs down.
I bought the Lutz book a few months ago when I saw it in an airport while I was on my way to Thailand to present a Manufacturing Leadership course. Bob Lutz is a certifiable gearhead with the credentials and experience to back it up…he’s held very senior positions with Ford, BMW, Chrysler, and General Motors. The book is mostly about GM, a company that rehired Lutz to help the company find its way again…which is another way of saying that Lutz’s new job was to conceive, develop, and make GM cars people would want.
A bit of history on this first…in the 1950s and 1960s, GM was ahead of the world in producing exciting cars. Think 1955 Chevys, the Pontiac GTO, the Corvette, the Olds Toronado and Cadillac El Dorado, the 1959 Coupe de Ville, the SS 396 Chevelle, the El Camino, the Camaro, the Buick Riviera, and, well, you get the idea. It was the golden age for American automobiles and GM was at the top of the heap. Then the company lost its way, and the cars GM cranked out in the mid-70s and beyond were just awful.
Lutz explains that the reason GM fell from glory was not just the financial folks (the “bean counters” of the book’s title), but its pre-occupation with committee-based design efforts that bred a culture of mediocrity. He makes a strong case for strong-willed leaders who design cars based on their instincts and a connection with the product, not what cost reduction, producibility, and all of the other “ilities” committees will approve.
The good news is that GM is on the way back, and I think you can see that in their new cars. I especially like what’s being offered by Cadillac and Chevy. I drive a Z-06 and in my opinion there’s nothing more exciting. It’s American made and it has the right style and sound.
The next book that I have even stronger feelings about is The Gun, by C.J. Chivers. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of this book before when I read a review in the New York Times. The New York Times is about as left-leaning a rag as ever existed and it had high praise for The Gun. I reasoned that if the leftist Bloomberg lackies liked it, there had to be something there, so I went to Amazon and bought a copy.
The Times was right, but for the wrong reasons.
My impression is that the Times guys did little more than read the press release for The Gun, as all they really mentioned in their review was that the book told the story of the AK-47’s proliferation after the Soviet empire disintegrated. The AK-47, of course, is the Kalashnikov-designed assault rifle that has become an iconic communist/terrorist/insurgency weapon. The Gun makes the point that after the Soviet empire fell all eyes were on securing the Soviet nuclear arsenal, yet no Soviet nuclear weapon had ever killed anyone. AK-47 rifles, however, were all over the world, and they had killed many people. The production quantities were such that the Soviets could have issued 700 AK-47s to each of their soldiers. They didn’t do that for obvious reasons…instead, the rifles proliferated and wound up in the hands of terrorists and other low-lifes all over the world.
While the above is interesting, it’s not what The Gun is all about. The book should perhaps have been titled The Guns, because what it focuses on are the differences between the AK-47 and the US weapon designed in response to it…the M-16. That, folks, is a fascinating story, and Chivers’ telling of it is masterful. The producibility, reliability, and engineering tradeoffs made by Colt and Kalashnikov for each of these weapons are fascinating. Colt focused on accuracy and precision, which made the early M-16s unreliable and less battle-worthy. The AK-47 focused on reliability, low cost, easy producibility, and just enough accuracy to make the weapon deadly. In the early Vietnam War days, there’s no question that the AK-47 was a superior rifle. Chivers’ explanations and comparisons of these two rifles make for great reading, and we use The Gun in our failure analysis, cost reduction, manufacturing leadership, and engineering creativity courses for just that reason.