Management November 3, 2014 Last updated September 18th, 2018 1,651 Reads share

Can Mary Barra Save General Motors?

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General Motors ignition switch problems from the 2005-2008 period, and the subsequent lack of responsiveness on the part of the company, demonstrates just how bureaucratically handicapped the company has been and continues to be. Is there hope for curing this problem? I tend to doubt it, based on recent activities.

More specifically, as noted recently in Fortune, it was on April 29, 2013 when a group of General Motors lawyers and technical personnel met and concluded that an ignition switch malfunction in certain models was the cause of the 13 people, and counting, who were killed because their air bags failed to deploy.

The group’s actions after that meeting crystallize how dysfunctional the company has been. Specifically, there was no immediate recall. Instead, the group hired an expert to study the data and six months later, they received a report from that consultant.

After studying the report, there was still no action by General Motors. Instead, committees were formed to review the report and determine what should be done. Finally, on February 7, 2014, GM issued a recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt for its ignition switches. The nine months of wasted time after personnel within the company knew definitively what the problem was, gives you a feel for what it has been like to work at General Motors.

In January 2014, GM named Mary Barra its new CEO and all of this ignition switch chaos was put on her desk. The good news is she was a key force in issuing the recall and initiating a lot further probing in regard to what exactly GM knew when. She has made it an open issue within the company that GM is horribly bureaucratic and things must change.

Surprisingly, she has indicated that her approach to curing the horrific culture problem at General Motors, as reported in the recent Fortune article, is to “alter the mindset by behaving differently every day than any other GM CEO has behaved in decades, and through her example and a CEO’s influence, to change the way everyone else behaves every day.”

To me, that action plan is not confidence building. Given all the time employees have for committees and long consensus decisions making processes, I suspect the core problems at General Motors are massive over-staffing and an absence of delegation of responsibility and accountability. Large amounts of people seem to get involved in most all the decisions and those decisions are typically made by committees.

Ms. Barra apparently believes she is going to change the mindset and the behavior of people who have worked decades at the company. The batting average of being able to do that is quite low.

After reading the numerous accounts of GM’s ignition problem and having studied the company over the years, I believe two steps need to be taken:-

  • First, they simply must hire some people who are really hard chargers and put them in the key jobs.
  • Second, they need a very significant reduction in manpower and a total commitment to delegation of responsibilities and accountability.

There is nothing like the fun of working for a smaller organization that is lean and under-staffed. When I was at Microsoft in the 1990’s and the company was growing 30+% per year, one of the things I noticed was the absolute need to delegate responsibility and hold people accountable. There simply weren’t enough people to do it any other way.   What this led to was great jobs for aggressive people who made things happen. That’s fun!

I wish Ms. Barra all the luck in the world because General Motors is important for the automobile industry and for the United States. On the other hand, put me in the camp of skeptical until I begin to see fresh talent, massive layoffs, and accountability.

Images: ”Detroit May 6, 2014: General Motors Building, GM Headquarters, Renaissance Center, May 6, 2014, Downtown


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Bob Herbold

Bob Herbold

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