Bob Lutz: What makes a great engineer?

  • 24-Oct-2016 10:50 EDT
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Lutz: "Train yourself to realize you can't win every battle."

Throughout the 2016 documentary film Live Another Day about the fall and rise of the Detroit-3 automakers, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz shows the insight and enthusiasm that made him one of the industry’s most effective “product guys” for four decades. While Lutz, now 84, actually holds a marketing MBA, his practical knowledge of aircraft design, systems and aerodynamics learned as a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot combined with a life-long love of cars, motorcycles and aircraft made him, as he says, “a close friend of engineers and designers.” He spoke recently with editor-in-chief Lindsay Brooke.

I’ve met many good engineers in my +30 years covering the industry. But what makes a great one?

Truly great engineers obviously have the intellect for handling the complexities of the math, combined with a thorough passion for the product. They tend to be left- and right-brained thinkers. The president of a major engineering university once told me that General Motors would only recruit his students who had the top grade-point averages. He argued that GPA alone does not make the best engineers. He said the kids he’d hire himself are the ones who might have a 2.7 [GPA] but who are absolute fanatics about whatever project they’re working on. They’ve got dirty fingernails from testing their theories and some even cut short their study time because they’re so passionate about their projects.

I agree. Some of the best engineers I’ve worked with are hands-on, very outcome-focused. And non-political.

What about leadership?

The passionate engineer then must trigger that same or greater enthusiasm in the people he or she is leading. Two people come to mind whom I think were exceptionally good at that. First and foremost is Francois Castaing [Executive VP of Engineering at Chrysler during its 1990s heyday who achieved earlier successes at Renault and American Motors]. Castaing was fabulous—he’d been in charge of Renault’s Formula 1 racing team. In racing if you don’t win on Sunday you re-design on Monday, you finish re-engineering the new parts on Tuesday and Wednesday, you fabricate them on Thursday and you test on Friday. It’s all short lead time, roll-up-your-sleeves and get the job done.

Francois was like that—and constantly doing things that were accepted by the system as being impossible. He loved challenges.

The other great engineer is Jim Queen [GM Group VP Global Engineering], a superb leader and former Marine pilot who flew F4 Phantoms. I felt that Jim got a lot of things done by the power of his leadership that lesser people couldn’t have accomplished. Jim wasn’t as enthusiastic about driving as Francois was—at the proving ground I never got to drive first if Francois was there.

How is it that engineers who are highly effective simply being engineers often turn out to be much less so when they move into management?

Even Francois found that to be tough, because he couldn’t understand senior management decisions that were counterintuitive. But you just train yourself to realize you can’t win every battle.

What’s the key to engineering greatness?

The willingness to take intelligent risks—both reputational and risks with the product. If you’re not willing to put your credibility on the line, I don’t think you’re going to achieve anything. To always ‘go with the flow’ is not great-engineer stuff.

How about great engineers at BMW?

When I was at BMW [1971-74, Executive VP Global Sales and Marketing] there were almost no engineers in senior positions. There were plenty of bureaucrats, however. That was my big surprise when I first went to BMW from GM Europe. I thought everybody was going to be enormously product focused, like me, and passionate about the cars.

When I wanted to put some nice artwork of BMW’s racing history in the lobby of the top floor of BMW headquarters in Munich where the chairman and members of the management board had their offices, I was told, ‘Mr. Lutz, the senior executive floor is a dignified place. Automotive subjects have no place here.’ That surprised the hell out of me and it made me wonder how we made such great cars. Then I found out senior management was blissfully unaware of what was going on in the product area.

At BMW the great engineering took place at a level well below senior management. We had Alexander von Falkenhausen, the brilliant engine guy. He did our first V-12 based on two 2.5-L inline sixes, in a few weeks.

The truly great engineers like Castaing, Queen and von Falkenhausen tend to be outcome-oriented versus process-oriented. That counts a lot with me because that old ‘If you get the process right, the product will be right’ bullshit often doesn’t work. If you have a perfect process with the wrong goals, you won’t have anything worthwhile.

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