Stop Blaming GM's 'Culture' And Start Blaming People

In his investigation into why it took more than a decade and 13 deaths to recall the Cobalt and other cars, GM's hired muckraker Anton Valukas routinely slammed a "culture" where safety wasn't taken seriously, effective communication was scarce and everyone failed to take responsibility for problems.

CEO Mary Barra has alluded to the same thing, saying Valukas report uncovered "deep underlying cultural problems." And today in Washington, lawmakers also panned the company's culture; Rep. Tim Murphy said GM's culture "does not respect accountability or take responsibility for problems."

However, it's very easy to assign blame to a nebulous concept like "culture," and when you do that you ignore the root problem: the people whose actions constitute that culture.

Culture can't be fired or reassigned or sued or held criminally negligent by a court. But companies and their people can. It's time to stop blaming GM's culture and start holding more of the people behind it accountable.

Let's first take a look at what critics mean when they talk about GM's culture. In Valukas' report, it means "the GM nod," where an entire room full of people nods in approval to the agreed plan of action, and then nobody actually does anything. It means an environment where stall-outs weren't considered a safety problem. It means managers being afraid or unwilling to report problems to other departments or senior executives.

These criticisms are in the news a lot these days, but really they're nothing new. For decades GM has been lambasted for being too insular, too arrogant and too bureaucratic. From quality issues to incomprehensible production decisions to little things as ridiculous as the Chevy Volt Dancers, "everything generated inside the company was by definition better than anything from outside," as Green Car Reports so astutely once put it.

It's a company that primarily promotes from within, employs generations of families one after another, and doesn't like to challenge the status quo. These days GM's culture seems not unlike that of another troubled Midwestern business giant, Target, that is also plagued by an environment where admitting problems, being critical and trying new things are all discouraged.

The truth is that there are people behind that culture, and if the culture is going to change, the people have to change first.

Lawmakers on the Hill today made that clear as they questioned Barra. Rep. G.K. Butterfield said "I would suggest you bring in some outside, fresh blood." Rep. Michael Burgess said "It looks like a lot more than 15 people should have been terminated."

And Murphy said that while 15 GM employees have been fired, that's a tiny, tiny amount of the company's total employees. Apparently none of them raised issues about safety along the way. "I find it hard to believe that out of 210,000 employees not a single one stood up and said, 'I think we are making a mistake here,' " he said. "Even at the VA we have whistleblowers."

Maybe it's disingenuous to compare a beleaguered government agency to a huge private corporation, but Murphy has something of a point. There was at least one whistleblower at GM, but when he raised concerns he was told to keep quiet for the sake of his careers and then punished for daring to speak up.

The only way GM is going to institute a true cultural change is to get rid of a lot more employees than just 15 engineers, lawyers and public policy people.

Valukas' report said scores of people and committees passed the buck, ignored, or failed to connect the dots on the safety problems over more than a decade. How many of them still work at GM, and if so, why? This goes much deeper than Ray DeGiorgio and a handful of others, and the fact that the board and senior leaders were clueless all along is a condemnation, not an exoneration.

Perhaps, eventually, the cleaning should start from the top. I have no doubt that Barra takes the safety issue extremely seriously — she hasn't minced words with her own employees or with the lawmakers grilling her today. And in Washington, her answers were far more substantial than in her now-infamous April "We're Still Investigating()" appearance. She has also ordered the top-to-bottom safety sweeps that have resulted in the recalls and has instituted a number of organizational changes aimed at fixing the company's problems.

At the same time, the world demands more than just changes to the bureaucratic structure. Barra made much of her "Speak Up for Safety" program, but it's unclear what it actually does, or whether it will truly be effective. And Rep. Diana DeGette said today that she has heard there is "even more paranoia" with GM employees fearful of losing their jobs.

Much was made of Barra's GM lifer status when she was appointed CEO, about how she comes from a company family, attended Kettering University, and how she spent her entire career at various posts within the organization. But how can she repair a damaged culture when she knows nothing else?

Barra may in fact be the right person to shepherd her company through the recalls. Sales certainly haven't suffered during her tenure, either — quite the opposite. But long term, she might not be the right person to institute lasting change at GM.

They may need the so-called "fresh blood" for that, much like Ford got with Alan Mulally, an outsider to both Ford and the auto industry. GM could benefit from an executive with a fresh perspective who is truly willing to tear down the house in order to rebuild it. (More so than recent outsiders like Dan Akerson and Ed Whitacre were willing or able to do, anyway.)

In the meantime, GM executives and their critics need to stop blaming ill-defined notions like culture when it's the people who act on that culture that truly need to be held responsible. A culture is only as good as its people.