Last week, GM announced the findings of an independent, company-sponsored probe into its failure to address defective parts that resulted in 13 deaths over 11 years. The technical problem was an ignition switch that could move to accessory positions while driving, causing the power to be cut and power steering, power brakes and airbags to stop working. The managerial problem was that no one fixed it.
The writers of the report principally blamed GM’s culture for enabling this tragedy.
- Lack of accountability ‒ one cited example was the “GM salute”: a crossing of arms and pointing at others. The employees responsible for making the fixes, including engineering, legal and cross-functional committees, operated in silos and failed to set timetables or demand action
- Lack of urgency ‒ this behaviour is known internally as the “GM nod”: everyone agrees to a proposed plan of action, then leaves the room and does nothing”
- Poor judgement ‒ the original switch failed to meet GM specifications, but was approved for production. Decisions were not assigned owners, therefore they weren’t made and no consequences were levied
- Avoidance of raising Issues to leaders ‒ consumer complaints or internal reviews were not raised to the highest levels of leader. There are many references to employees failing to disclose critical pieces of information about the defect
- Conflicting leadership priorities ‒ teams had differing views on competing mandates ‒ “cost is everything” and “cost is irrelevant when safety is an issue”
|Mary Barra Addressing the Recall Probe
Mary Barra, Chief Executive, communicated the investigation findings to all employees via video conference. She announced that 15 people had been fired for incompetence and negligence and 5 more had been disciplined because of their inaction. A new safety head had been hired into a more senior role than his predecessor and a new “Speak Up for Safety” program was being launched to encourage early reporting of safety issues.
Most of Mary’s comments focus on GM’s culture that enabled the shortfalls: “Fixing this is going to take more than getting rid of some people and moving boxes around on the org chart. This is going to require culture change and an ongoing vigilance.” Fair enough, but what does this mean? How will the leaders that have prospered in the current culture create a dramatically different one?
Here are my recommendations for GM leaders:
- Don’t “put this behind you”; make it part of your new culture. Weave this tragic story into company lore and build ways of working to avoid it happening again. For example, ensure that new employee orientations include your lessons learned. Share how this has profoundly changed your thinking and behaviour. This failure is part of your culture and will be a source of strength when you can articulate what you have become because of it. Follow Mary’s lead: “I want to keep this painful experience permanently in our collective memories. I don’t want to forget what happened because I ‒ and know you ‒ never want this to happen again. This will take conscious actions.”
- Modify your rewards system to encourage new behaviours and leave behind old ones, especially for senior leaders ‒ they must demonstrate that they support the new culture and are prepared to benefit or lose because of it
- Work on accountability first. Nothing will change without people at all levels feeling responsible for outcomes
- Document examples of the new empowered culture and share them across the organization
- Invite external experts and the press to evaluate your progress. Highlight and address setback. There will be setbacks
The most important recommendation is for leaders to acknowledge that they own GM’s culture and they created the old one through their actions and behaviours.
The report could have said that leaders take full accountability for the failure to recall dangerous cars. It would have been an excellent example of the new culture they are charged with creating.