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Book Review of: Power

How J.D. Power III Became the Auto Industry's Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History

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Review of Power, by Sarah Morgans and Bill Thorness (Softcover, 2014)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Every car enthusiast is familiar with the name J.D. Power, and rare is the car owner who isn't. Most of use take for granted that J.D. Power somehow watches over the auto industry and lets us know which are the best cars. Have you ever wondered who they are and how they came to be? This book provides the answers to those and other questions about this highly influential company.

A fact that implicitly emerges from this book, and that is explicitly stated several times late in the book, is J.D. Powers is the reason car owners today have a vastly more positive car owner experience than in times past. With the automobile being so integral to our culture and way of life (except for those in big cities like New York or Chicago where, for many, owning a car isn't essential or even, in many cases, sensible), this is no minor thing.

I remember in the 1960s those dreaded appointments to take my dad's car to the dealer. It was an all day event, and my mom would be tasked with doing it. There'd be some problem, which my dad (an accomplished mechanic in his own right) would diagnose for them and just want fixed under warranty. Usually, it would take multiple trips to get it resolved. This was such an ordeal. I was a kid then, and this ordeal turned me off to the idea of owning a car when I became old enough to do so. I didn't stick with that "no car for me" idea for long, but the "dealers are terrible" idea really stuck with me and it would be a couple of decades before I would even visit a new car dealer.

Today if you bring your car to the dealer, they can diagnose the problem and usually fix it on the same day. And instead of a dingy, smelly waiting area, you are treated to a modern facility complete with many free amenities including free Wi-Fi and clean bathrooms. But another huge difference is the types of problems that result in needing a dealer visit are vastly different today. Most such problem that existed even when I was a kid do not arise today at all.

And what has driven this change in quality isn't some idea among auto executives that it could mean a happier customer; in fact, at one time they had no idea what customers thought of their products. What has driven it has been the published results from the various surveys done by J.D. Powers.

Not that Powers had an overnight influence. This company started in 1968. When did automakers finally get quality right? Maybe twenty years later? Thirty?

Understand, please, that quality isn't something that happens just because you decide to do a better job of inspecting completed vehicles. In fact, it's not even related to that. Quality gets built into every facet of the complicated process of designing and building an automobile. I studied quality in graduate school in the early 1990s, and at that time Toyota was the object of many case histories and other relevant material. The "big three" were way behind Toyota at the time. From that standpoint, you measure quality in terms of defects. The lower the statistical occurrence of defects (e.g., instances of X defect per 1,000 units) the better your quality metrics are.

Primarily by lowering defects, manufacturers were able to rate higher in consumer perception. As everyone raised their game, the "quality floor" kept rising. The level of quality today is orders of magnitude beyond what it was when J.D. Powers began. How and why J.D. Powers obtained the power to make this happen is the core story of this book. It's an interesting story, well told. And it presents lessons  for other industries.

Something not mentioned in the book is it also presents a lesson for the number one consumer good in the USA, namely that badly broken institution we call the federal government. When statistics come out saying the approval rate of President Obama is 26%, many people wonder what's wrong with those people in the 26%. Similar remarks about Congress (the opposite of progress) get made all the time, though its approval rating is often in the single digits (I find it alarming that Congress has any approval at all). While I personally see this "lesson to the gangsta government" as a prime benefit of reading this book if you apply the lessons to other areas, I am also glad the authors did not take the book down that path. I'm just saying the same thing that worked for the auto industry can work for other dysfunctional, customer-deaf organizations. And no organization is more customer-deaf than the federal government.

Something that may be off-putting to some readers is the book's coverage of Dave Powers himself is obviously one-sided. There's no scandal and the book lacks of negatives to balance all the positives. Often, the tone is downright fawning. But let's look a little closer at that. First of all, one-sided coverage is unavoidable in a book that clearly must have had the cooperation of, and sign-off by, people close to the main "character" in the book. Second, it may  very well be that Dave Powers' conduct really was that above-board.

From my personal experience, I can cite two examples of high-level executives who led professional lives above reproach and whose grace and humility were as remarkable as what you see in this book.

Bud Keyes, former CEO of Bailey Controls, was certainly a human with human faults and frailties. But when I worked at Bailey as a systems engineer, my coworkers and I spoke of him with awe and near adoration. Bud was a man of extremely high integrity, and he (echoes of Dave Power, here) put the customer first.

I had the privilege of attending a "CEO speaks" sort of event featuring Boake Sells, former CEO of Revco. Subsequent to this, I had many interactions with Mr. Sells. Despite the fact I was (relative to him) a nobody, Mr. Sells accorded me respect and was very gracious with his time. I can't say enough good things about him.

I've worked in trade journalism since 1996, and I am known for giving the straight scoop on things. I think if I had been tasked with writing a "balanced" piece on either of these two men, it would have read much like the commentary on Dave Powers in this book. There really are business people who are role models and heroes for the rest of us. Bud, Boake, and Dave are probably just three among many.

So while this book appears to some reviewers to be one long press release, I don't see it that way. I have no doubt that Dave made mistakes the authors chose to ignore, but if Dave is like Bud and Boake (and I suspect he is), those mistakes are at the detail level and probably not very interesting. The book is a bit overly promotional and it is somewhat repetitive. So I deduct points for that. Still, it's a good read and it tells us how one company changed an industry that is integral to our culture.

This book consists of a foreword, afterword, and 9 chapters in 365 pages.


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