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Delve Talks: Lee Visci, GM

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our first season focuses on what it takes to create a corporate culture that supports innovation.


Dave Franchino:Hi everybody. My name is Dave Franchino. I'm your host and thanks for joining us. Today, my guest is Lee Visci, who is a consultant at General Motors and had a very long career General Motors. In interest of full disclosure, I started my career working for Saturn Corporation, working alongside Lee with the design of the first Saturn vehicles and always tremendously respected her leadership and her focus on innovation both at Saturn and then when she returned back to General Motors. Lee served in a variety of roles for General Motors over a very long and illustrious career. So, Lee is both a friend and former colleague and somebody I really admire. Thanks for coming in the show. I really appreciate it.

Lee Visci: Yeah, glad to be here.

Dave Franchino:Maybe you could start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself. Can you walk a little bit through your career and some of your background, because I think that would provide a nice perspective to understand your thoughts on innovation?

Lee Visci: Well, great. So, first of all, the thing that I'm the most proud of is I'm a third-generation General Motors employee. So, my grandfather started at Buick Motor Division, my dad worked at music Buick Motor Division. I was born in Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors and the birthplace of me. So, third generation, which is great. I spent 38 years at General Motors. It was all an engineering, essentially. So, I went to General Motors Institute. Continuing the General Motors theme in my life, every time my daughters try to tell me that they want a Jeep, I tell them “Everything in your life came from General Motors. You need to buy a General Motors car.”

So, 38 years. Went to General Motors Institute, met my husband, have two daughters. Somehow, we navigated ourselves through it together, I would say, through my career at General Motors. I spent the last 15 years in executive roles. I spent a lot of my life in body (structures), which is where I worked with you, Dave, at Saturn, which was a pinnacle of my career. That experience was just fantastic from a bunch of different directions, but was in body structures there and when I went back to General Motors, I was in body exterior and then I spent time as the leader of the global seat team at General Motors and I spent some time as a chief engineer. I worked on the Cadillac ATS, the original one, and then I also was the midsize truck chief engineer for a while. 

Just before I retired, I was the director of advanced vehicle engineering, which was a lot of fun. My team of engineers were the ones who were embedded in the Design Studios, which was like a Disneyland for an auto engineer. It's just kind of an interesting, I would say, love-hate relationship between design and engineering in any kind of an automotive, you know, kind of enterprise. I mean, design thinks that they're the ones who drive everything and engineering is convinced that they're the ones who drive everything. But you know, really, it's the ultimate symbiotic relationship because neither one of those parties can get along without the other. 

So, it was a great insight into that and then I retired four years ago, and I've just been doing stuff for fun. Did a little consulting. I was involved in a kind of quasi-volunteer venture for General Motors this summer working with inner-city kids, and I'm just having a blast. So, along the way I got a couple of master’s degrees in addition to my engineering degree because everybody ought to have two MBAs. I got one from U of M-Flint and I got the other one from the Sloan School at MIT.

Dave Franchino:Lee, fantastic and congratulations both on a great career and your retirement as well. One of the things I was inspired to want to ask you is what special challenges you think that large entrenched companies in mature industries face in trying to create an innovative culture.

Lee Visci: Well, because they want an innovative culture and let me just use because, obviously, GM is my experience. So, GM took many, many stabs at developing an innovation arm, I'll say, as well as an innovation culture. So, for many, many years it was more about “We're just going to get through the next model change. Whatever design comes up with, and engineering is going to execute that to the best of our ability and we're going to launch the vehicles. Everything's going to be great.” And then in the 80s and the 90s, it started to be about that wasn't enough. And so, what do you do to build innovation into their organization because that will translate into products and services that customers want that will make them buy your product.

But the problem in a big organization is how do you do that? You know Saturn – our heart – Saturn is a good example of that. You know, that was kind of an innovation incubator and you know as well as I do that when you're inside the innovation incubator life is good and we are special and we are working on this really, really important project and we are going to save the world and you know, there was like this feeling inside of Saturn that we're going to take over the world. 

But from outside that bubble, the rest of General Motors, there was a high degree of resentment toward what was happening at Saturn. The amount of resources that were invested in Saturn at a time when the company was going through one of its many struggles, in the late 80s and the early 90s. And people inside the company at Chevrolet and Buick and all of the rest of the divisions were thinking, you know, “I could be doing two more model lines for what you guys are putting into Saturn. Is it really worth this innovation?” And that's one of the first things that you get into in a big organization. 

It's kind of like when you have a downtown and you have all these beautiful flower boxes and people are planting all the flowers and people are walking down and everybody enjoyed how wonderful it looks, but then the first time there starts to be some budget issues you think, “Oh boy, you know are those flowers really required? It takes a lot of resources to plant those flowers, water those flowers.” That's kind of the way innovation is in a big organization. It's like really nice to have and it makes life better for everybody. But it's sometimes really hard to justify the amount of resources that it takes to generate it because the output is so unknown and the tangible output that you can actually sell is unknown.

And so, you will sit in many meetings in big organizations and you'll look at the innovation funnel and you look at the big funnel at the top and millions of ideas go in here and you got to be supportive because as it goes down, you know, only two or three nuggets are going to turn into something. And everybody sits around and nods their head, but then when you're trying to work through that funnel, it's a little tougher to keep everybody's attention on it. And I think that that's the hard thing.

I've been thinking about this a lot since we decided to do the podcast and GM has done, or at least when I was there, did innovation all the ways that you can think of. Let's have an innovation team. Let's put a group of people over in the corner. Not bother them with the day-to-day things that are going on so that they can just think about these innovative things. I think about that. I think about maybe the folks that were populated in that – were they really the most innovative people in the company? I'm not sure. So, you take another approach. Everybody take four hours a week where you don't have to go to meetings. You don't have to do your regular work. This is just four hours a week for you to be creative. I don't know. It's a difficult thing.

Lee Headshot August 2015
Lee Visci, Consultant, General Motors

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Delve has merged with Bresslergroup. Learn more →