I can't begin to count how many turnaround plans I've written about over the years, especially at General Motors. There was the huge, 1984 reorganization -- which essentially crippled the carmaker for the next two years -- and it was followed, if memory serves, by almost one big shake-up every year for nearly a decade. During the late 1980s, CEO Roger B. Smith and his team announced like clock work, the latest supposed savings. The numbers ran into the tens of billions of dollars. Yet by 1992, GM came within minutes of declaring bankruptcy. Smith's hand-picked successor, Bob Stempel, was ousted, and GM went through another big reorganization. Since then, it's been one change after another. The names and faces frequently change, but the message seems to always be the same: "We've figured it out. We're going to fix it. Trust us."
Ironically, the most telling comment was one current CEO Rick Wagoner made, following the GM annual meeting this year: “If I had a chance to rerun the last five years, we probably would have done a little more thinking about making sure that each product was distinctive and had a chance to be successful.” Wow, what a concept. Product matters. Turnarounds only work when they result in consumers getting more product faster and for a better price.
The Japanese figured that out early on. The Koreans, after an early mis-start, have gotten the message, too. Is it foolish to hope that GM finally has, as well?