Friday, December 12, 2008

Thoughts from Abroad for Home

Anyone who is serious about deliberating a way out of the automobile industry crisis should also be open-minded enough to recognize that good advice may come from beyond our national borders. Consider, for example, Gabor Steingart, whose thoughtful pieces on economic problems appear regularly at SPIEGEL ONLINE. His latest is entitled "How to Save Detroit From Itself," with the intriguing subtitle, "The Bill Gates Method." Sure enough, the punch line of his analysis is based on a visit he made to Gates when Microsoft was on a vigorous rise:

Two decades ago, I met the still-youthful Gates in his Seattle office and noticed it was no larger than a corner shop in New York. A young-seeming man sat in front of me who see-sawed on his chair like a kid on a rocking horse. He spoke quietly, thought carefully and listened to himself.

He told me his ideas about revolutionizing the software industry. I understood very little. The young man was feverishly immersed in a world of memory chips and operating systems. But I did notice that he mistrusted himself. He said his most important helpers in business were not software engineers, or even his own talents, but dissatisfied customers. He listened in on his company's phone bank, heard the curses and outraged voices of his customers, and tried to learn something.

He built a world-class company out of their complaints. In Detroit, meanwhile, the car industry has moved seamlessly in the opposite direction -- from early success to arrogance.

Any successful rescue plan for Detroit will require both money and genius. The new strong man will have to look and think like Bill Gates. The list of guiding principles of the Gates Foundation, a charitable trust which he runs with his wife Melinda, makes it sound as if the foundation could save American capitalism. Long-term orientation is indispensable, it says. A company needs "room for growth and change." And then there's a line that could open the next employee meeting in Detroit: "We take risks, make big bets, and move with urgency. We are in for the long haul."

Ultimately, this is a story about how rules change and about how survival depends on being flexible enough to change with them. Where cars are concerned, outraged customers can easily vote on the basis of the car they choose to drive; so Detroit executives could have learned their lesson without listening in on customer service phone calls. However, if they are incapable of learning from all the data points available to them, then, as Steingart has put it, anything that passes for a "rescue plan" cannot be anything other than "a multi-billion-dollar assisted suicide." Is anyone in the White House taking the time to read Steingart's analyses these days?

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