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Mary Barra Talks Culpability and Commitment


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6. June 2014

Yesterday, General Motors CEO Mary Barra held a town hall meeting for GM employees around the world to discuss the status of the ignition-switch recall and its consequences. The corporation hired former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, head of Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block since 2007, to investigate what happened vis-à-vis who knew what about the switch problem and when did they know it. The GM executive staff received a copy of the report on Monday.

Of it, Barra said, “the report is extremely thorough, brutally tough and deeply troubling. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company”—she’s been there 33 years—“it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly. I was deeply saddened and disturbed as I read the report.”

Which is not the sort of thing one generally hears a CEO saying. Barra’s forthrightness deserves praise.

GMMaryBarra02.JPG Barra speaks to GM staff (photo: Steve Fecht for GM)

She was disturbed because the whole sorry mess that started 11 years ago and that led to the deaths of at least 13 people was something that happened because of GM people. Barra stressed: “I want it known that this recall issue isn't merely an engineering or manufacturing or legal problem, it represents a fundamental failure to meet the basic needs of these customers.”

She stated: “What the Valukas investigation uncovered – in this situation – is a pattern of incompetence and neglect.”

And she did not relieve executive management from involvement. “What Valukas found was a pattern of management deficiencies and misjudgments – often based on incomplete data – that were passed off at the time as business as usual.”

That, I think, is a troubling aspect of all this. One of the problems that seems to plague many corporations is the belief of their own PR. Over the past few years it was difficult to talk to a GM executive who didn’t utter what had become something of a mantra: “design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles.” A laudable goal, but it got to the point where they seemed to think that that is what they were doing, when, whether measured by third parties, sales comparisons with the other OEMs, or even this “pattern of incompetence and neglect,” it is far from being the case.

After Barra and her team read the report, they had people fired. They acted based on the findings. Barra stated: “Fifteen individuals, who we determined to have acted inappropriately, are no longer with the company. Some were removed because of what we consider misconduct or incompetence.”

And she continued that statement by saying something that certainly gives me hope that things will be squared away at GM going forward, something that people at all companies, at all levels, ought to keep in mind as they do—or don’t—their jobs:

“Others have been relieved because they simply didn't do enough: They didn’t take responsibility; didn’t act with any sense of urgency.”

That bears repeating:

“Others have been relieved because they simply didn't do enough: They didn’t take responsibility; didn’t act with any sense of urgency.”

It isn’t just about the sin of commission. As it says in the Bible: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). That’s the sin of omission. Not acting. That’s not acceptable.

Barra told her fellow GM employees: “To excel – to truly build the best auto company for customers – we have to change our behavior as well.

“We have to personalize this challenge. Quality and safety aren’t someone else’s responsibilities. They are mine. They are yours. We all must feel a personal responsibility to see that this company excels at every level.

“Together, we have to understand that the attitudes and practices that allowed this failure to occur will not be tolerated. Also, if we think that cleaning up this problem and making a few process changes will be enough, we are badly mistaken.”

This is about individuals doing the right thing, each and every day. This is about the long run, not something that can be changed with a wave of a wand and a Presto!

It is going to take days, weeks, months, years. And it is going to take commitment and dedication to quality and safety, it is going to take people who don’t become bored, distracted or complacent.

Mary Barra concluded her remarks by saying: “I want GM to be the world’s best automotive company – for customers. Whatever it takes to do that is what we are going to do.”

What they need to do, at all levels, is understand—as I think that she does—that this is only going to be achieved by a never-tiring commitment and dedication from the top to the bottom of the company and, most importantly, individual involvement from each and every person who works at GM.

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