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(FORTUNE Magazine) – Attending for the blueprint of Coca-Cola, and you’ll acquisition it in a coffer basement in Atlanta. Search for Intel’s chip blueprints or Merck’s biologic formulations, and you’ll apparently locate them in a bound book chiffonier someplace. But at General Motors–once afresh this year the bigger architect of accumulated revenues on the planet–hiding basal advice isn’t so easy. The aggregation sets a absolute apartment as repositories for the diagrams, charts, and pictures–stamped GM CONFIDENTIAL–that are the body of its machines. The abstruse rooms, as able-bodied as the company’s architecture studios, accept been bankrupt to outsiders for years, but I was accustomed to appointment in February. Few restrictions were placed, but my tours were brief, and I could not booty any pictures.

No abode is added basal than the Rigorous Tracking Room, amid in the basement of one of the flat-roofed, 1950s-vintage barrio on GM’s engineering campus in the automated suburb of Warren, Michigan. Rigorous Tracking contains a coffer blueprint 45 anxiety continued that plots 42 new agent programs–the absolute aspect of GM–through their three-year gestation. The programs are abstinent for timeliness, quality, and banking performance, and blush coded by complexity: A aloft redesign is brave maize, while a absolutely new car is black blue.

Big Ten admirers will admit maize and dejected as the colors of the University of Michigan, and indeed, article of a rah-rah spirit prevails at GM these days. It no best teeters on bankruptcy, and concluded 1996 with added than $14 billion in the bank. The aftereffect of nonautomotive assets, as anticipation a year ago in FORTUNE, is proceeding with the acting $9 billion auction of aegis electronics to Raytheon and with a advised accessible alms for 20% of the Delphi parts-making business. All-embracing operations are strong, as is the accounts company.

There’s aloof one big problem: GM has absent the home-field advantage. It makes about no money in North America, area it has college costs than its competitors and some of the weakest brands. Its cars don’t accomplish a profit, and although its trucks do, GM produces beneath of them as a percent of absolute achievement than either Ford or Chrysler.

Last year a able achievement by the blow of GM was abject bottomward by North American Operations (NAO), which builds and sells cars and trucks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. U.S. bazaar allotment beneath for the fifth beeline year. Activity relations, never healthy, hit a postwar low as UAW strikes kept GM from architecture 300,000 vehicles, at a amount of $1.2 billion afterwards tax. Overall, NAO alternate a piddling 1.2% on sales. If you exclude the Delphi parts-making business, as GM began accomplishing in March, NAO’s acknowledgment shrinks to 0.8%. That’s able-bodied beneath GM’s ambition of 5%.

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Despite the debacle, GM expects aloft improvements at NAO in 1997. “It is activity to be a abundant year,” says the plainspoken administrator and CEO, Jack Smith, 59, adorable a little ashen afterwards accident 15 pounds on a diet. He won’t accept any excuses: GM is introducing 14 new models this year, apery 25% of its sales volume. The new models are bigger designed, bigger built, and cheaper to aftermath than the ones they replace. They are actuality launched into a advantageous economy, admitting the advancing ambiance is fierce. GM will accept to action Ford and Chrysler for barter sales, and Toyota, Nissan, and Honda in cars.

Outside GM, expectations are lower. “The aggregation has bigger its amount structure, automated artefact development, and bigger its image, but it still lags abaft the industry,” says Paul Ballew, a Detroit economist for J.D. Power & Associates. “The new bearing of articles is abundant better, but they are block affective targets.” Like Chrysler and Ford. Chrysler aloft profits in a beam in the aboriginal 1990s by redesigning the minivan and introducing badly styled LH cars. True, Chrysler is abundant abate than GM, but admeasurement abandoned isn’t the issue. Ford is two-thirds GM’s size, and its North American operations run added smoothly.

GM collywobbles over about everything. Explains Rick Wagoner, 44, the angular Harvard MBA and Smith protege who runs NAO: “In 1992 and 1993 we were aloof aggravating to stop the bleeding. In 1994 and 1995 we put in some key processes: agent development, cast management, active lean. In 1996 and 1997 we are putting in a additional annular of key processes: engineering productivity, accepted procedures and systems, and all-around integration.” For those befitting account at home, that’s six years and counting.

Why is it so adamantine to get this monster moving? GM has altered handicaps abiding in its history and culture. NAO grew up as a accumulating of six abstracted agent makers overseen but never absolutely managed. The accepted purpose for which they were aing generally got absent in angry civil competition. Lacking accord and direction, the capacity became accessible casualty for able absolute constituencies: suppliers, dealers, activity unions. Thus, NAO, with about bisected a actor employees, operated afterwards centralized manufacturing, purchasing, abstracts processing, advertising, or bazaar research. I visited a abstruse room, alleged Chump Satisfaction, abounding with classified achievement measures committed to administration one of Jack Smith’s objectives: accepting anybody to do things the aforementioned way–to “run common,” as he puts it. Imagine award such a allowance at General Electric or Exxon or Coca-Cola. (Characteristically terse, Smith describes his added three objectives in aloof bristles added words: “run lean, grow, go global.”)

What a adviser ability alarm “empowerment” became anarchy at GM. Booty stamping, a simple accomplishment action that GM fabricated awfully complicated. As afresh as the 1980s, backyard was breach amid several car and barter capacity that ceremony produced their own metal genitalia application altered presses and dies. This anecdotal access resulted in some columnist systems that ran alone 20 hours a week. Pieces formed by Pontiac for a assertive archetypal wouldn’t fit on a about identical car fabricated by Buick. Now Joe Spielman, 52, the 6-foot-6 arch of Metal Fabricating, is aggravating to appoint accord on his extensive organization. GM is spending $850 actor to assimilate the die accumulation at 13 plants and abate the cardinal of columnist band setups from 57 to six. That’s progress, admitting it won’t accelerate GM to the arch of the class. Spielman says GM will absorb about $2,700 per ton for stamping, vs. $2,200 to $2,300 at Toyota.

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GM’s accumulation plants accept been every bit as abortive as the backyard process. The Pontiac Grand Prix, alien in 1988, was congenital in its own committed bulb in Fairfax, a Kansas City. But aback Grand Prix sales fell off the shelf, accumulation was cut from two accouterment to one, and the branch absent money for years. Now the Fairfax bulb has been reengineered with adjustable machinery; it can body both the Grand Prix and a new Oldsmobile alleged the Intrigue, and it runs on two shifts. With the big-ticket accessories absolutely utilized, the Grand Prix has swung from a money also-ran to a moneymaker. But Fairfax still isn’t world-class. GM takes 29 hours to put calm the Pontiac. It hopes to advance to 22 by the end of 1999. Toyota already assembles a Camry in 20 hours.

GM’s assorted capacity should accredit it to accomplish economies of scale, differentiate brands, and augment a multichannel banker network. But one or added capacity consistently ache because articles overlap. Worse, GM never bent up to the barter bang because of adulterated bazaar analysis and adamant leadership. So while trucks, including action utilities and minivans, are aing 50% of all auto sales, three of GM’s six divisions–Saturn, Buick, and Cadillac–sell none. Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti, and Lincoln will all accept affluence action utilities to advertise afore Cadillac does.

No analysis suffered added beneath this arrangement than Oldsmobile. Its sales skidded from 1.1 actor in 1986 to 331,287 aftermost year, as crumbling barter died or defected to Buick. If GM had absitively to annihilate Olds in 1992, it would accept been euthanasia. Instead it kept Olds alive, conceivably to abstain the amount of affairs out dealers, conceivably out of the abhorrence that too abounding sales would be lost. One idea, briefly debated, was to absorb Olds, GM’s oldest and weakest franchise, with Saturn, its youngest and strongest, so that Oldsmobiles would become addition cartage from Saturns. The abstraction died aborning, but it had merit; today Saturn outsells Olds.

Having fabricated the accommodation to accumulate Olds and all its added divisions, NAO had to amount out a bigger way to abstracted alone models and still advance the economies of calibration that appear from accepted engineering. So it adopted a action of defining and targeting detached groups of barter through a analysis address alleged “needs segmentation.” Afterwards commutual a diffuse analysis of tens of bags of carbuyers, it disconnected them into about 30 “needs segments,” based on such characteristics as income, age, ancestors size, and active habits. Buyers of sport-utility vehicles, for instance, were subdivided into six segments, represented by the $60,000 Ambit Rover on the aerial end and the $15,000 Geo Tracker at the low end.

This is a absolute arguable access to architecture cars. Asking questions is science; interpreting the answers is art. Somehow GM charge construe its algid abstracts into hot cars, which it tries to do in its architecture studios, the repositories of its best anxiously captivated secrets. GM anxiously tests concepts with customers, again shows them calibration models of the absolute agent all the way through the architecture process. Barter alike get a adventitious to feel how the car will drive by advancing into a $1 actor programmable mockup.

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GM abandoned its analysis in the accomplished because its engineers anticipation they knew best. Barter hated the beached-whale Chevrolet Caprice and the dustbuster minivans aback they saw them in administration clinics, but GM congenital them anyway. Now advice is king, anxiously calm and analyzed in a distinct administration run by Michael di Giovanni, 49, an intense, hardly congenital economist. “Our job is to get engineers and designers to pay absorption to the research,” says di Giovanni. “GM chock-full alert to the chump in the 1980s, aback it did things like put bifold sunroofs on minivans. It additionally neutered the brands. We can commonize our cars area barter don’t see the differences, and differentiate them area they do.”

Other automakers actualization GM’s research-driven architecture with aggregate from affable action to jaw-dropping disbelief. Analysis is fine, they say, but it produces arid cars. Admiral charge await on their own acquaintance and acumen to adapt it. Chrysler carnality administrator Robert Lutz, almsman of Detroit’s aureate gut, is decidedly disdainful. “We’ve spent too abundant time ‘listening to the customer,'” he told a British auto magazine. “The chump is usually aloof a rear-view mirror. Why should we apprehend him to be the able in clairvoyance?”

Early allotment on GM’s new action are mixed. The aesthetic Buick Park Avenue and the advancing Pontiac Grand Prix assume altogether styled to their ambition customers. But to me, the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Aeon attending as if their advised buyers are called Hertz and Avis. GM admiral accept that some cars advised aboriginal in the process–like the Oldsmobile Cutlass–went advanced of their advised audience, but they accept alike the added boilerplate models will acquisition their market. Utterly missing from this accumulating is a car that ability stop traffic, like a 1984 Ford Taurus, a 1992 Dodge Intrepid–or a 1955 Chevrolet, for that matter. Says Wagoner, a tad defensively: “If you attending at how our articles accept done, not with the addict books and auto writers but with the bodies they are advised for, we’ve had a lot of success.”

With 82 models of cars and trucks (counting two-doors and four-doors separately), GM is a big accepter in shelf space. Rather than architecture a distinct ancestors sedan–like a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord–that sells 350,000 units a year, GM sells four sedans aimed at altered segments, alignment from bourgeois to sporty. Says di Giovanni: “People accept been compromising their tastes to buy a Camry aloof to get the quality. If we can accommodate the aforementioned quality, we will accumulation a car that absolutely meets their needs.”

Oldsmobile will be the acerbic analysis of this theory. In rebuilding the brand, NAO has absitively to carelessness the crumbling buyer abject of Olds and go afterwards a new accumulation of adolescent barter who usually buy alien cars. That’s absolutely a anaplasty for a dowager analysis that celebrates her 100th ceremony on August 21, and GM concedes that it will be difficult. “Olds had to reposition abroad from a portfolio of barter who are activity away,” says active business arbiter Ron Zarrella, 47. “And they charge to get a accomplished ambit of new customers. We anticipate we’ve got the artefact right. The catechism is: Can we get the business and affairs right?”

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Two of the articles that will actuate Oldsmobile’s approaching are anchored in GM’s architecture studios and accept never been apparent in public. They are the bunched Alero, which replaces the backward Achieva, and a $27,000 auto code-named Antares. They are adorable cars, but afterwards seeing them, I admiration if they will draw shoppers abroad from Honda and Lexus, abnormally if they backpack an Oldsmobile badge. Added clues to Oldsmobile’s approaching abide in a adjacent alcove, one of seven Cast Actualization Centers that GM has created to accumulate the actualization of ceremony analysis straight. Posted on the walls are pictures of old cars, close-ups of architecture capacity like headlights and caster covers, and sketches of approaching models.

Defining the cast actualization of a analysis like Pontiac, with its boy-racer history, is simple compared with creating an angel for Oldsmobile. GM’s marketers accept called four adjectives they appetite the new Olds to embody: thoughtful, precise, international, and rewarding. Try advice that into area metal. In fact, new Oldsmobiles will resemble the acutely styled Aurora, a $36,000 auto that, ironically, was accepted by auto writers but alone by customers. The new cars will all accept bulges aloft the caster wells, a thin, accumbent emphasis band forth ceremony side, and six-spoke wheels. In an absorbing artifice to position Olds adjoin its adopted competition, GM is accouterment ceremony archetypal a bit bigger than accustomed and appraisement it a bit college as well. That can assignment for a able marque like BMW. But should BMW and Oldsmobile alike be appear of in the aforementioned breath?

I got a clear affirmation of how GM affairs to differentiate Olds from added brands by adorable central addition abstruse room. I saw a adobe archetypal of the 1999 Olds Bravada action account actuality sculpted alongside a Chevy Blazer and a GMC Jimmy, which allotment the aforementioned basal automated structure. While the assigned mission of the Blazer is to attending “practical,” “durable,” and “trucklike,” and the Jimmy is a somewhat baroque affluence version, the Bravada is authentic as “refined,” “more carlike” in actualization and ride, and “understated” in its luxury. I admiration if those could about-face out to be distinctions afterwards a difference.

It’s one affair to architecture a car and absolutely addition to architect it so that barter get it quickly. A blueprint in the Rigorous Tracking Allowance shows GM’s progress. In 1992 the aggregation bare 42 months to alpha accumulation on a new archetypal already the final architecture had been set, vs. 31 months for Toyota. Now GM can do it all in 31 months, but Toyota has hardly been continuing still: It has bargain artefact development time to 26 months. Bristles years from now GM’s appear ambition is 18 months, about area it expects Toyota to be as well. That’s a big leap, as Wagoner concedes. “We’ll be depending on a lot of computer simulation,” he says. “We can’t blast cartage adjoin a coffer and still accommodated these schedules.”

Like aggregate abroad at GM, artefact development suffered from assorted processes and personalities. Lessons abstruse in one affairs hardly appeared in afterwards ones, because cipher was account from the aforementioned page, abundant beneath the aforementioned book. GM’s accomplishment to actualize a accepted artefact development system, which is still alone 80% complete, is aggregate on a behemothic blueprint I saw in the Chump Satisfaction chamber. The blueprint identifies 39 “enablers”–common processes that abbreviate affairs advance time and advance quality. The enablers tend to accept jaw-bending names like “develop component/subsystem sourcing model,” but they represent analytical operations that are anxiously monitored. To ensure accountability, ceremony enabler has an individual’s name absorbed to it. A blooming amphitheater appears on the blueprint if aggregate is active smoothly; a red amphitheater aback things are not. Engineers like to say that “red is good,” because it agency a botheration has been detected. However, too abounding red circles draw the absorption of admiral as aerial as Wagoner. Aback I saw the chart, greens outnumbered reds by about seven to one.

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Even admitting NAO is seeing added blooming these days, accepting accumulation of a new car up to abounding assembly-line acceleration requires 32 months–if things go smoothly. Honda changes models over a weekend by accomplishing added preproduction planning. While GM dealers delay for the new cars, they accept to accumulate affairs old ones that charge be heavily discounted and befoul GM’s image. The aggregation alone afresh retired the midsize Buick Aeon and Olds Ciera, which anachronous to 1982, and it still sells the bunched Buick Skylark and Olds Achieva, alike admitting they would accomplish cool patients for Dr. Kevorkian. Simple tasks, like renaming a vehicle, booty an eon. The origins of “Jimmy” on the GMC sport-utility agent date aback to World War II, and its chump disinterestedness approximates zero, but GM is alone now accepting about to replacing it with “Envoy.” Says Zarrella: “I don’t anticipate we care to aloof cut it [the Jimmy name] off. As we differentiate the artefact from the added ones, it makes faculty to reposition the cast name.”

If 1997 is activity to be a abundant year at NAO, as Smith insists, it had bigger get going. Sales fell acutely in February, and GM’s bazaar allotment for the aboriginal two months of 1997 was 30.3%, bottomward from 32.5% for the aforementioned aeon a year ago. GM blames the abatement on all those “unavailable” new models. The Cadillac Catera, alien with alarum in November as “the Caddy that zigs,” has been zagging at dealers, so GM cut the charter amount to $399 a month. Activity agitation continues apace, while some 40 UAW locals accommodate bulb agreements in the deathwatch of the civic arrangement active aftermost fall.

GM’s bazaar allotment may absolutely ascend aback to 33% this year, as admiral predict. But barring a aloft collapse by one of its competitors, or an abrupt access in new-car sales, it is difficult to see North American Operations anon accomplishing Jack Smith’s oft-stated ambition of a 5% acknowledgment on sales. Despite all the smart, aggressive bodies active it, NAO charcoal abounding by its accomplished and bedridden by the able UAW and banker groups. It sounds oxymoronic, but the approaching of NAO may lie overseas. GM is cerebration of means to accommodate approaching Chevies, Pontiacs, and Saturns with German-made Opels to accomplish greater economies of scale. A blink into the aftermost abstruse allowance reveals a bunched Pontiac Sunfire GM is designing alongside four added brands–some from alfresco the U.S.–as allotment of a all-around small-car affairs for the aboriginal 21st century.

That seems a continued way off. Fixing GM has angry into a decade-long activity that few people–investors, analysts, or aggregation executives–could accept foreseen. The catechism is, already it’s fixed, what affectionate of car aggregation will it be: outstanding or alone average?

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