Turbocharging a Giant

Article excerpt

Byline: Doron Levin

When Mary Barra was a senior manufacturing executive a few years ago at General Motors, she spotted another maker's car decked out in a rich metallic black color. It was unlike anything GM was offering, so she suggested the color be added to the company's palette--and was promptly rebuffed by fellow engineers, who fretted about potential quality-control difficulties. But Barra wouldn't take no for an answer, and before long buyers were able to get their Cadillac Escalades and Chevy Malibus in elegant "Carbon Flash."

Now Barra, 49, has far bigger logjams to break. Recently named head of global product development by GM CEO Dan Akerson, she's officially charged with overseeing design rather than the manufacture of new vehicles--and is responsible for 36,000 engineers, designers, and planners worldwide. But over the past several weeks, as Barra has shuttled between GM headquarters in Detroit, its technical center in nearby Warren, and a test track in Milford, it's becoming clear that her strategic mold-breaking mission may be even more daunting. With Akerson pushing for GM to shorten lead times for new vehicles, it falls mostly to Barra to accelerate the streamlining of development itself, which is methodical and often fraught with time-consuming, costly debates and procedures.

The stakes are high, and the approach is controversial because it's a precarious time for GM. The carmaker was forced into bankruptcy in 2009 and saved only with government financing. Though it's now on the upswing--having earned $4.2 billion in the first nine months of its initial year after bankruptcy--it isn't out of the woods. Akerson, a private-equity financier with no automotive experience, keeps pushing for GM to build cars faster and cheaper. Pulling it off will make GM more competitive, but going too far risks design errors that could result in costly recalls. …