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Innovation

Delve Talks featuring Lee Visci, GM

September 18, 2019
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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.

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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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Dave Franchino:Well when you reflect on that, obviously, we were both impacted by General Motors’ decision to break off Saturn as a separate entity. And I think you did a really nice job, Lee, of at least in my mind, reminding me of sort of the advantages of that and then perhaps some of the resentment or disadvantages. What advice might you have to organizations who maybe are considering that but have decided, no, they're going to try to build more innovative cultures within their main-line organizations as opposed to stripping it off. Either are valuable techniques, but having probably seen both, if you were a manager and said, “Okay, we're not going to have the luxury of being able to split off a group of people. We just want to ratchet up the level of sort of innovative thinking within our teams.” Would you have any advice that you would share with people?

Lee Visci: Well, I would say that you've got to look at kind of the cards that you're dealt in your organization and figure out what works best. Because as I think about it, you really need to figure out the kind of – I don’t want to call it the absent-minded professor – but whoever in your organization is that person who's always like thinking about kind of the wild ideas and your kind of half-looking at him like “What?” But I really feel like with the advantage of, I call it wisdom, gray hairs, whatever it is. That those are the people that you need to surround with some kind of infrastructure because they won’t be able to do it on their own, right?

I mean, they're just kind of like the idea people and it's like the relationship between design and engineering at General Motors. Those creative people aren’t going to be the ones to be able to develop the idea into something that is commercial. But if somehow you can surround those people with an organization that can help them along. But then, I mean the tough part there is the chemistry that goes along with that. Because, you know, egos come into that. “I just don't want to be somebody's assistant. I want to be the one who's doing it.”

So., I feel like you got to look at the cards you're dealt. I feel like you can't just do one thing, and that's depending on how big your organization is. It might be difficult to do all of them. In other words, to say, “Okay. Well, we want to have an innovative culture. So, you know, everybody gets there supposedly.” I think this is impossible to actually pull off, but let's just say it is, to do your four hours a week of creative thinking in the corner, not bothered by anybody. You go outside in the nature, whatever you do, whatever you draw your inspiration from, you get to go do that and I think you've got to have a little, maybe, innovation team.

And if you've got some kind of a skunkworks, you know, process where okay, somebody's got an idea. I need some help doing it. I want to grab my two buddies, my best friends at work, and let's go off and work on this thing and okay, you can just throw them some money so that they can actually build something. Somehow, I think you got to be able to do like all of those things.

Dave Franchino:Yeah, it's interesting, the idea of developing perhaps a portfolio of innovative efforts both internally and then within more segregated teams. That makes an awful lot of sense. Lee, a couple times this conversation you've talked about, you know, getting engineering to work with design and in any organization, there’s going to be sort of flash points or potential conflicts between the parts of the organization you want to work symbiotically. But there's going to be a natural tension between sales and marketing, engineering and manufacturing, engineering and design, you know, service, whatever. What are some things that you can think of that can promote more innovative thinking or more innovative culture when you've got some of these natural points of tension that can arise between entrenched departments or disciplines within an organization?

Lee Visci: Well, you know, probably the first thing is it’s got to be whatever product you're working on. I think it's got to have a compelling story and it's got to have a soul and if it has that and it can be articulated, then I think it's easy for everybody to get behind it. If it's one of these, kind of like, orphans that somebody thought was a good idea and then, “Okay, well, we're told we have to do this so, we're all going to get on board.” I think that those are the projects that can get more contentious, at least in my experience.

Because I'll go back to, well, let me come up with a good example—Corvette. Corvette at General Motors, there was never a problem to get anybody to work on anything and everybody was trying to push the envelope to deliver design’s vision, to deliver the performance guys’ desires. I say guy in the overall sense, by the way. I mean girls, guys, whatever, so everybody was pushing everybody, right? And so, design was being open to, you know, we need to make this thing breathe in this particular way and we need to drive more air and so when you got a look like that, it all comes together.

Okay, I'll name this one because it's my favorite example—Olds Alero. I mean, it's hard to get excited about an Olds Alero. So, Corvette is one thing and the 75th derivative of something else is harder to get behind. So, that's probably the biggest thing. The other thing is if you can have engineers with a little bit of design background, whether it's just understanding line quality for an example and understanding form and function. And, so whether it's sending them to class or whether it’s getting your creative guy to go to the bar with them and explain how that works. And the other way as well, but it's a little bit trickier, right? You got the creative types and they're not going to take your mechanics course, but that kind of a thing. If you can walk in each other’s moccasins, I think it helps

Dave Franchino: Sure. I think that makes sense. And obviously there's some special challenges associated with that in kind of larger, complicated companies. One question I had for you, Lee, if I if I can be tactful about this: You spent your entire career within General Motors, one company, and yet one of the things I really admire about you is I always found that as a leader, I thought you brought a very fresh perspective and were kind of thinking outside the box. For other people that might be in a similar perspective of work internally or spent a long time on company – how and where did you find inspiration and information for advancing your thoughts on innovation that, you know, weren't just sort of inbred from the culture at the one company you worked within.

Lee Visci: Well, probably because I would attribute it to, number one, having parents that were kind of interested in the world. So, I always had a lot of interests, right, and I read a lot and traveled and so I always felt like when I was in GM, even though you know, I was there and I still am to my core a GM person. I always felt like I was a little bit of an outsider, like I wasn't really, and maybe because I always felt a little bit insecure because I was never on the weekend in my garage, wrenching on cars.

I would do it during the week, but I would do a bunch of other stuff when I wasn't doing that, and then I think that that's where it came from. I was just always interested in people and so while you would get these things to do from the company that maybe didn't make complete sense, but you knew it made sense on one level because when you're trying to steer a ship that's as large as General Motors, you kind of have to have some things to do that are consistent so that everybody's kind of rowing in the same direction. But within that box that they give you, you know, you can do some creative things and you can bring the best out of the group of people that you're in to also feel like give them give them the feeling like they have control as well, even though you might not have as much control as you think or want.

Dave Franchino: That makes sense. Lee, one of the things I was thinking about: twice in your career, if I'm correct in this twice, you took time off to pursue continuing education. And I was just curious, reflecting back on those decisions. How do you think those impacted your career? And did they impact your thoughts on how to bring more innovation back into General Motors?

Lee Visci: Well, I mean one is the time that I took a year out, and I mean General Motors sent me there. So that kind of took the pressure off but, I'll tell you what it did for me is it reinforced that the method that I was using that was working okay for me in General Motors, it was pretty effective outside of General Motors, too. I mean just from a leading people standpoint and getting people to focus on a task and how are you going to get that task done. And so, then that translated back to when you got back to the organization that you were normally working in, then it kind of gave me more confidence to say, you know, this is the way that we can do it and the method that I've been using to convince people to go along with me on this journey seems to be pretty effective.

But the other thing is when you go away like that and now all of a sudden your network is much larger and you're opened up to many, many different companies and many, many different ways of thinking and many different cultures and it just gives you a whole different perspective. It makes you think that, well, maybe the way that we're doing this isn't the only way to do it. But I think that the biggest thing that it did is it reinforced there are other people that you can ask, right? I mean, so I think that that's an important thing to bring it back to innovation, as well, because innovation could seem daunting because at the basis of innovation is creativity. And that's a big word and intimidating word and you think that all of these other people other than you are creative and innovative, but you can get a lot out of just saying, you know, “I've had this idea. I don't know how to do it. I don't have tickets to the next step, but you know, wouldn't it be great if …”

And so, when you have that network of people that are around you and that's probably the biggest advantage of having a career in a big organization as long as I did. I mean, I was literally like, you know, it's like the Six Degrees of Separation. I was four or five phone calls from any question that anybody asked me. I could make four or five phone calls and get the answer. And so, I think it's the same way with innovation. You would get to solving an engineering problem and get to some thorny bit of it and you would say, “Oh man, I don't know, but let's talk to this person and they will give me what do I do next,” and rarely would that fail in terms of solving a problem.

Dave Franchino: I don't want to bring up painful memories, but during your tenure General Motors went through some really tough times. And if I'm not mistaken, you would have been there through the bankruptcy period of time and I'm sure that was sort of a near-death experience for the culture at the same time you as a leader were, you know, under tremendous pressure, but trying to turn out high-quality products, trying to keep your employees motivated, trying to continue to do things in an innovative way. As you reflect back on those really tough times, what lessons might you be able to impart to other leaders who are perhaps faced with similar challenges or difficulties within their organization and still trying to find time and motivation to keep people excited and find ways to be innovative?

Lee Visci: Well, you know, I read this quote somewhere, that’s the job of a leader is to bring your teams hope, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. I mean, it really is because you're looking at your direct supervisor to set the tone. So, you know, if you're kind of down in the dumps and “Oh, yes, this is horrible,” and because it was, I mean, it was near-death experience. It was. It was awful. I mean, there's nothing worse than sitting across the table from someone and telling them, “Well, today is your last day of employment at General Motors” and to have been part of that whole process of deciding who stayed and who went. I mean, that's the worst, the worst, but outside of that, there's still work to do. And that’s what kept us all going.

And we did the Volt through bankruptcy, which still amazes me, but it just gets back to the lesson that you and I learned at Saturn—that people want to be part of something that's bigger than themselves and the Volt at that time was bigger than all of us. This was going to be this, we're going to move, this is like the next step in electric vehicles, and we're going to do this, and we're going to do it even through bankruptcy. We're going to pull this off. And the reality is we did and every team in General Motors had a little piece of that.

I had the seat group at the time. And there was a lot of complication that you don't need to know about that went into those seats, you know, but by gosh, we were going to push through that and get those seats done. Which we did, so I really think from organization standpoint, when you have chaos like that it can be an opportunity for innovation because they kind of like took away all the toys and said, “But you still have to get the job done.” And so, then how do you motivate people to do that?

Well, it gets back to the you want to be a part of something that's bigger than yourself. It's not, you know, you're not getting motivated by, “Boy, it's so much fun to come in here to work every day because the vibe is so great.” You know? It's more like “Hey, this is going to be our future and we need to push through this and nobody expects us to be able to do this, but we're going to show them.” And you kind of create your own bubble around that chaos and pull the good pieces out of it and build on that. And that's really what that taught me. But, yeah, those were dark days.

Dave Franchino:Yeah, I understand and think there's some really valuable reflection. I think the opportunity to try to find the motivation to persevere and find innovation within challenging situations is one that's well reflected upon. Lee, you know, as we were thinking about this conversation, one of the things I was wondering on … you've been retired for a little bit now. I was just curious if time is changed your thoughts on innovation or efforts to foster an innovative culture. Anything you would do differently or anything that the hindsight of retirement has caused you change your perspective on?

Lee Visci: Well, I think that it's more like you get so caught up in the day-to-day, like these things are so critical, you know, and what was so critical about that? It's kind of like when you reflect on a whole life, you know, and what are the really important things that you did in your life. And I think that sometimes just the day-to-day demands that come from somewhere in a big organization, you sometimes scratch your head to figure out where these demands are coming from.

But I think if I were to have an opportunity to do it over again, but this kind of comes from having a few gray hairs as well, right, and having the ability to stand up in front of some of the forces that come into your team that are interrupting what you want to be able to do. But having the core intestinal fortitude to stand in front of that and say “No, we have to pull this thing off because this is kind of really important.” I would stand in front of those freight trains more often. But I think the really tricky part is, I don't have the answer to this, I just think that finding the pockets of innovation, creativity is tough. I came up with a couple of examples when I started to think about what we're going to talk about on this podcast.

Think about the corner step that's in the pickup truck rear bumper on the trucks. You look at that step and you think, “God, what a great idea.” We've been building trucks for a hundred years. Why did it take until 2000? I think it was 2001 on the Avalanche, to put that corner step in. That six inches makes a huge difference for somebody to be able to step in and get into the truck bed. And, as trucks get meaner and taller it even becomes more important. So that six inches is huge and you're thinking, like, why did that take so long? Those truck bumpers have been hard to get on for 50 years and nobody thought of it. And it's so simple when you look at it afterwards you think “Jeez, why didn't somebody think of that?” 

So that's kind of an easy one where once that idea was formulated that's one of those that's easy to sell, right? An easy sell back to design because, you know, you make it right. You build a mock-up and you do a demonstration and you say, “Look at this. Look how much easier it is to get into the truck once you've got that step.”

But if I move to a different example, like let's just talk about OnStar at General Motors. Great innovation but think about that when that proposal was brought up the first time. Well, there is when you look at it now, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, look at this is like a huge advantage and look at all the things that we could do with this and, gosh, if you got to this point, you know, you could redo engine calibrations and send it back to somebody's car and wouldn't it be great and they wouldn't have to go to the dealership.”

But think about the convincing that it took on somebody's part to say, “Hey, this is what we're going to do. We're going to mandate that this going to be in every car. It takes an extra battery that somebody's going to find a place to put. It takes extra mass to include all the stuff, all the wire harnesses and all the batteries and all the boxes that we’ve got to package these parts in. But don't worry. It's going to be great.” I think that is an interesting case study to say, “How on Earth did that get sold inside the company?” That’s an example because as much as I love General Motors, General Motors is the expert at eating their own young and so it's kind of shocks me now that that didn't happen to OnStar because there were so many things kind of working against it, but it was the able to be executed.

So, when you talk about innovation, just think how you choose those elements to be able to drive them. Because somebody had to drive OnStar and somebody had to say, “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. I hear all of the things that you're telling me on why this is a bad idea, but we're going to do it anyway.” So, unless you've got somebody like that, you know, like a Steve Jobs at Apple. This is now, “I don't care what you're telling me. We're going to do it this way.” Is that good enough? Unless we do it this way? You know, he was right … but how do you know? There are only so many people like that and so how do you nurture those? I think the way is you build on the small successes and celebrate them and try and build from that.

Dave Franchino: I think that's a really thoughtful comment. A couple of great examples and some good reflection on that. You're right that the opportunity to sort of find those nuggets and then nurse them through the process and prevent the white blood cells from coming out and attacking them as they do in any organization is really valuable. It’s inspired me to ask one last question, which is to a great extent the automotive industry is changing very dynamically. An industry, which you can probably argue from a structural perspective has been fairly stable. Suddenly, cars are competing on features and functions that have nothing to do with transportation and mobility the way we used to define it 15 years ago. Technology, apps, software, connectivity, automatic driving – all those things have caused maybe some of the things that initially you vexed you in the automotive industry – fit, finish, acceleration – those have become kind of table stakes in some aspect. 

So how do you foster a culture of innovation when the landscape is moving so rapidly that some of the things that were core upon how the company was founded aren't necessarily the attributes that people are looking at when they're deciding whether or not to buy your product?

Lee Visci: Right, and I think that's and I hate to take it back to PR, but I think you’ve got to have a good PR person or you've got to have you know, a CEO -- and let's take Mary Barra -- and I'm saying TR in the most positive sense possible and not derogatorily. I think that you have to have somebody with a vision who can articulate that and continue to drive that through the organization because I think that the point that at least GM engineering is in now, you make an excellent point. I mean, all of this time that we've spent developing, handling attributes, and understanding that to the molecular level and then you get to this wonderful crop of Millennials that we have that don't care one bit about, seemingly, the driving experience and what that means. It’s just about transportation and “Get me from point A to point B, and if I don't have to drive that would be even better.”

And so, somehow, because we're still going to have a vehicle but all of those people whose jobs looked one way, now will look a different way. And so how do you make the organization feel good about, in their mind maybe they're taking a step back in terms of what they've been trained to do, but it's still part of this overall bigger, again, back to people want to be part of something that's bigger than themselves. You need to be able to articulate what that bigger than themselves is and how they fit into that. And so that's why leaders are so important and so critical to an organization. Because they might not be the ones inventing all of the things that are going to turn into products, but they're the ones nurturing those pieces and bringing them together into one piece. But then, also communicating to the rest of your organization why this is important and how it all fits together

Dave Franchino: Great. That makes a lot of sense. It's very really well articulated. Just any parting advice you might give to, you know, a young leader or growing executive who really wants their company to be more innovative, but isn't quite sure how to get there and may be stuck in a little bit of a rut? Any advice that your career has provided you'd like to impart?

Lee Visci: Well, I just think that you've got to bring attention to the successes that you see in the organization. And they might be small, you know, and maybe it's some little, award that becomes part of the culture. But yet but I think that you've got to continually be on the lookout to recognize and reward somehow. It doesn’t have to be monetary. It can just be with recognition, but reward and recognize the behavior that you want to see, and I think that can start at a small level.

But I also think you know as a leader you're going to have to put your money where your mouth is, and it can't just be ideas. I mean, conference room engineering is not worth anybody's time. So, you know, if there's an idea I would say nurture that, surround that idea person with some resources. Build something so that people can see what you've got and see what happens out of that because I think that can generate a lot of things. And if you've got a piece of software or a prototype or whatever, you have just keep showing that to get people to think, “Oh, I hadn't thought about that before.” But what that does is it makes me think to what the next step should be and that can generate things.

Dave Franchino: Lee, I’ve really appreciated this conversation. I know our listeners will get a lot of value out of the thoughts you've had, and it's been a delight to reconnect and get some of your thoughts. So, I appreciate your time. Once again, my name is Dave Franchino, the host of this podcast and joining me today was Lee Visci, who had a great career at General Motors and has been able to share a lot of her thoughts. We appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Lee Visci: Glad to be here.

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