DETROIT – Management atopmay have put a new emphasis on moving fast, but time-to-market will not come at the expense of quality, the auto maker’s product development chief vows.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the quick with quality, or I’m not that interested in quick,” Barra tells WardsAuto during an interview at last week’s North American International Auto Show here.
The 50-year-old Barra was appointed senior vice president-global product development at GM nearly one year ago, succeeding Tom Stephens, who took the baton from renowned product guru Bob Lutz.
For outsiders, the appointment of Barra as GM’s car czar seemed curious, given she had come from human resources. But under the HR banner, she performed a massive restructuring of the workforce as the auto maker steered out of its 2009 bankruptcy.
Insiders also know Barra’s work at GM dates back 32 years, starting at a Pontiac-brand assembly plant as a co-op student while studying electrical engineering at the formerInstitute, now known as Kettering University.
Her climb up the management ladder included a stint as plant manager of GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, head of global manufacturing engineering and an M.B.A. in 1990 from Stanford University.
Barra carries the requisite bloodline, too, raised outside Detroit as the daughter of a 39-year tool-and-die maker at Pontiac Motor Div. Her earliest aspirations were to own a Pontiac Firebird, and today the married mother of two counts a ’10 Chevy Camaro among her family’s relatively modest 3-car fleet.
As global product chief Barra manages a $15 billion business unit, with 36,000 employees involved in design, vehicle and powertrain engineering, program management, quality and strategic alliances.
Perhaps most importantly, Barra functions as GM’s guardian of vehicle quality, wielding a powerful “no-vote” within an auto maker led by a senior executive team determined to make it the fastest-acting volume manufacturer in the world.
Asked if she carries veto power within the new GM, Barra replies: “Absolutely. We’re not going to compromise quality.”
That’s a bit of a departure for an auto maker known to speed up product programs at the sacrifice of quality.
GM’s large cross/utility vehicles, for example, are a hit in the market today, but the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and now-defunct Saturn Outlook stumbled out of the gate. That’s because in the rush to tap the growing segment GM clipped important transmission validation work, resulting in poor drivability. A software flash fixed the issue later.
GM’s quality over the years has made significant strides, according to third-party data. But it continues to trail rivals such asin public perception of the metric. At least one newly launched high-volume vehicle, the Chevrolet Cruze, fought early quality problems.
As an example of where the company now strikes the correct balance between speed-to-market and thorough product validation, Barra points to the eighth-generation Chevy Malibu midsize passenger car.
The new-for-’13 Malibu launched production last week, about six months ahead of its original schedule, to get ahead of rivals planning redesigns for this fall, with GM’s eAssist mild-hybrid powertrain.
The car’s volume-selling engines, a 2.5L 4-cyl. and up-level 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl., were not ready. As a result, Barra green-lighted a Malibu Eco model until those additional powertrain options become available in the fall.
“Occasionally,” you can find that opportunity,” she says. “And we’ll always look for those opportunities, because that is just smart business. But for me, I first want to make sure we have complete discipline to our competitive vehicle-development process.”
Barra says GM continues to mine that process for ways to shrink the average product cycle, such as more validation performed using simulation software tools early in the process. It’s faster and less expensive than building and testing real vehicles.
“We’ll continue to push all aspects of that, but what’s more important than just necessarily quick is quality,” she says. “We’re not going to compromise (on) making sure the vehicle has been fully validated and is going to delight the customer.”
Looking ahead, Barra expects GM’s product portfolio to take advantage of the auto maker’s new profit stability and hew less closely to a truck market proven susceptible to swings in the economy and fluctuating fuel prices.
GM’s previous inability to make money in a poor economy and a market where consumer choice can shift abruptly cost the auto maker about $1 billion in vehicle-development money because it constantly was starting and stopping product programs.
“Think about that,” Barra says incredulously. “If we could have that (money) on a program that actually gets to market, it would be pretty critical.”
Driving into the new year, expect the auto maker to continue to leverage its global reach. The four presidents of GM’s global regions gather twice annually in meetings featuring “a lot of constructive tension” to plot the future, Barra says.
“We’re asking what the customer wants and getting that feedback from all around the world,” she says.