Last week, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra told GM employees and journalists that an internal investigation of the way the company handled its deadly ignition switch problem did not find a “conspiracy by the corporation to cover up the facts.” However, the investigation did reveal something equally bad, if not worse: a company defined by incompetence and willful ignorance.
One of the defining characteristics of GM’s corporate culture was, according to the report by investigator Anton Valukas, the “GM nod,” which he described as a situation “when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room with no intention to follow through.”
Its collective willingness to ignore problems is one of the reasons why GM failed to adhere to federal regulations and recall its ignition switches despite years of incident complaints, crash reports, failed engineering tests, and repeated warnings from a GM lawyer that the company “could be accused of egregious conduct” in lawsuits involving failed airbags in Chevy Cobalts and other small cars.
The “GM nod” also took the defective switch, described by one GM engineer who helped design it as the “switch from hell,” and converted it to an “issue of customer satisfaction, not safety” despite the fact that the problem could cause sudden stalls at highway speeds, cut off power steering and anti-lock brakes, and deactivate the airbags.
Treating the defective ignition switch problem as a customer satisfaction issue effectively helped GM to avert a costly recall. Instead of taking real action to correct the defect, GM called for more meetings and investigations, all of which apparently ended with a “GM nod.”
Mary Barra has promised that GM’s ignition switch debacle would serve as a learning experience and transform the company into a safety leader, but as good as that may sound, there’s little to indicate it is anything more than CEO-speak.
As a USA Today report said, “Since the scandal exploded in February, GM has dutifully followed the PR playbook for powerful institutions caught up in similar firestorms.”
“Act penitent,” USA Today continued. “Commission an ‘independent’ investigation headed by someone close to the company. Issue a toughly worded report. Accept its recommendations. Roll some heads, preferably lower level ones. Promise a new, customer-focused beginning.”