That’s the label the GM engineer who designed the faulty ignition switch that was first used in 2003 gave to his own baby. Oh, and when engineers learned that the ignitions were going into the off position, thereby shutting off the engine, randomly, at highway speeds, they labeled it an “issue of customer satisfaction, not safety.” Sure, it is a pesky thing to have your car stop suddenly on I-95. Being a sitting duck on a freeway whilst cars approach at 70 mph is a bit more than a “I’m not crazy about my Cobalt” type of complaint. In 2011, lawyers warned GM that it “could be accused of egregious conduct” because it was not following up on accidents, deaths, customer complaints, and continuing problems with the switches and airbag deployment. Still, no action was taken.
As amazing as these disclosures in the Anton Valukas report for GM are, what is worse are the conclusions. “Dysfunction,” “Bureaucracy,” but no “conspiracy.” CEO Mary Barra has fired 14 people and reorganized the company so that there are now reporting lines to officers regarding vehicle design and safety. Now there’s a novel idea — executives knowing what’s going on in their companies? What next? Accountability?
Mr. Valukas offered a lawyer’s report. The report threads the needle to prevent its use in product liability suits for possible punitive damages. But, by focusing on legal issues of “no conspiracy here,” the report misses the cultural issues. The report does not answer this basic question, “Why would these engineers and anyone else who was aware of the problem believe that it was okay to not fix the switches, to not follow up on root-cause analysis, and to not make the information public?” We know that they were bureaucratic. We know that they remained silent. We know that things were not fixed. We knew that before the first gumshoe headed out to gather 14 million documents from the company. What we still don’t know is why.
Ms. Barra told employees in a speech following the report’s release that if they see a problem affecting safety that they should talk with their supervisors. And if their supervisors are not handling it, she told them “Contact me directly.” A good start, but she still needs to look at why no one was doing that before. Compensation systems, fear, perceived inaction or lack of response — all of these are factors that influence employees’ lack of action. “Incompetence and neglect” are the symptoms. We still do not know the cause. The unexplained is why everyone at the company remained silent about both.
If the report is correct, the waters of inaction run wide and deep in GM. A speech by the CEO will not effect change. Culture change requires signals. What Ms. Barra needs to do is what Alan Mulally at Ford did in order to get employees to bring bad news to him. He promoted the manager who was the first to speak about problems in the company. That manager is now Ford’s CEO. Ms. Barra has fired 14 people and done the usual shuffling of the deck chairs, but what she needs is positive reinforcement. She needs an opportunity to recognize those who come forward with issues and encourage all supervisors and managers in the company to do the same. And she might want to see what impact deadlines, budgets, and corresponding incentives had on creating GM’s culture of silence that allowed the incompetence and neglect to trump safety.