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

Illustration for article titled Stop Blaming GMs 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.

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Let me tell you a little story about GM people, because the "culture" comes from the people and their attitudes, as you say, Patrick.

I worked for GM for 10 months, from December 3, 2007 to October 10, 2008. I was a "Design Systems Engineer" and I'm still not entirely sure what the hell that actually means, because I was doing component design and systems integration, officially, but mostly I was attending meetings, for the 2nd-gen mild hybrid powertrain system marketed as eAssist.

Prior to my GM stint, I had ~18 years under my belt, at Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Metaldyne (a Tier 1 supplier). Well on the far side of 10 million vehicles have been produced with parts of my design. Not a one of them has ever been subject to a recall, an owner notification, or even a TSB. Not just because of me, but because of the hundreds of people I worked with who also bought into the "it has to be right" work ethic.

My job at GM largely consisted of attending meetings, as I said. On alternating weeks, I was either in 30 hours of meetings or 32 hours of meetings, spread across 6 buildings on 3 campuses, so add in another 5-6 hours of transit time per week. As you can see with basic math, that didn't leave much time for engineering out of a 40 hour work week.

On any given week, I neither contributed to nor gleaned useful-to-my-job information from 90% of the meetings I attended. So why go? you ask. I asked, because I felt it wasn't a good use of my time. I was admonished that I needed to be in these meetings (for various vehicles in development, such as the Alpha - eventually the Cadillac ATS - which was considering the mild hybrid setup), even if our area of the vehicle wasn't on the agenda that week, because the vehicle team "might do something that would be detrimental to our systems" and thus "we have to have representation there to address that" — even if that week's agenda was a discussion of the front bumper system or the seats, systems that had exactly zero interface with a mild hybrid system.

Most of these meetings were held in rooms crammed past fire code, where the goal was to arrive early enough to get a power outlet for your laptop (and, at that time in most of the Warren Tech Center, access to one of the ethernet hubs as those buildings lacked wifi), which would allow you to try to do the job tasks you would be doing if you weren't "showing your face" (and just occupying space) in these meetings.

"So, when am I supposed to be engineering? I've got about 3 hours a week not in meetings or transit to/from meetings."
"You should be working however many hours to perform your tasks, even if that means answering emails at 11pm and again at 5am."
"Am I going to get paid for working 70+ hours a week every week?"
"No, you're an exempt employee. Casual overtime is expected."
"Working 45-50 hours a week during those occasional times when we've got something hot and heavy is casual overtime. 70 hour weeks every week as a matter of standard practice isn't casual overtime."
"Well, that's what we expect."

About 3 months in, I was asked by one of the component engineers for advice on a press-in coolant tube on the motor-generator unit. Since I'd been a cooling system engineer for most of my career, this was something I could do while drunk, asleep, blindfolded, and with both hands tied behind my back, so I sketched it out, dimensioned the sketch, and the designer modeled it. Job done, I thought.

The next day, my "supervisor" (dotted line) pulled me into a conference room, closed the door, and proceeded to scream at me at the top of his lungs for about 30 minutes. My crime? I'd made a design decision — in other words, I'd done my job. I was told that my experience (more, I might add, than my "supervisor" had) didn't count at all because it wasn't at GM; that I had no authority to make design decisions, that I had made a "handle" that someone could use to move the engine around when it was on the hoist and damage the tube and was thus dangerous (my response: "So? They can pick up the whole engine off that tube. Won't bother the tube a bit."), and that from there on out, I was only permitted to advance ideas to him, and if they met with his approval, then we could consider them.

Then, by way, I suppose, of trying to knock me down another peg, he asked how many vehicles had been made with press-in coolant tubes I'd designed. I found this an odd metric, particular since I knew his lifetime "production" vehicle count was lower than the annual volume for the lowest-volume program I'd ever worked on (about 12,000 units/year), but I did some math in my head and came up with "As of today, about ten and a half million vehicles, give or take a couple hundred thousand, and anywhere from 1500-2000 new ones rolling off lines every day."

It took him a minute or so to contemplate that number, which killed all his frothy momentum, and he ended the "conference" muttering something about how he would be changing it to what he wanted, but then called up the cooling system engineer to quiz him about my design. Said cooling guy emailed me "WTF?" — the cooling guy fraternity is pretty small, and we all at least knew of each other — while telling my "supervisor" that everything I'd done was standard practice and exactly right. Then cooling guy called me and I gave him the Cliff's Notes version.

When I got home that night, I reactivated my resume on Career Builder and Monster (LinkedIn wasn't at a maturity level that was useful yet). The next day, I managed to squeeze in a few minutes with my Chief Engineer (who was my real manager), who assured me that I was indeed allowed to make decisions and do my job, that my "supervisor" would be counseled about what had happened the day before (our conference room walls were maybe 2" thick. EVERYONE in the office heard him yelling and didn't hear my very quiet responses) but I could read the writing on the wall.

I knew I was going to be cut loose more than a month before they told me I was fired for installing a desktop weather application on my company computer.

That's right: the only justification they could find for firing me was my installation of Intellicast's weather app on my laptop.

200 other engineers were "fired" on the same day, but GM did not call it a layoff. A layoff, you see, would have to be reported as such to the state. The HR guy (oh, my exit interview was rich — I forced it on the HR guy, told him about how hostile the work environment was — he didn't take any notes, which told me everything I needed to know there, got assurances he would investigate it, which was a lie and I told him so: "You didn't take any notes. That tells me how honest you're being") assured me they wouldn't contest my unemployment filing.

They contested my unemployment filing. They lost. They appealed. They lost the appeal. I didn't find out about that until some time after I'd gotten another job and moved to Houston for it. Here's the kicker: you can't sneeze at GM without it costing $10,000 in overhead. Someone there — and I'm sure they contested, lost, appealed, and lost again for every single one of those 200 engineers fired the same day I was, so multiply this times 200 — thought it was a good idea to spend at least $20,000 trying to recover all of $3680 in UIC I received during the 10 weeks I was out of work.

It wasn't long after I'd moved to Houston that GM filed for Chapter 11 in 2009. They gave Rick Wagoner the boot, and shuffled the desks on the executive floor, but the CYA-with-bureaucracy-and-empire-building-above-all-else low- and mid-level managers who are the root cause of GM's troubles, then and now, are all still in their positions, doing them exactly the same way they always have. I know my "supervisor" is still there, as is my manager.

If GM is to change the way it does things, there needs to be a massive forced attitude shift in those low- and mid-levels of management. THAT is where the problems lie. THAT is where the fix needs to happen, not on Mahogany Row. If it means wholesale replacement of hundreds, if not thousands, of people with new managers who actually give a shit about doing things the right way, well, I won't shed a tear if two of them find themselves fighting GM's contesting of their UIC filing.

Postscript: When the Buick Lacrosse eAssist debuted, I made a point of looking under the hood of one. The coolant tube on the MGU was my design.