GM's Real Problem: Too Many Meetings, Too Much Nodding

At 325 pages, the General Motors report on its recall disaster reads more like the script of Office Space than some corporate thriller. The company’s fatal ignition switch problems weren’t kept secret by conniving executives bent on saving money, according to the third-party probe released Thursday. Engineers knew the switches were faulty from the start, and GM’s product-testing folks replicated the problem time and again. Journalists wrote about it, police filed accident reports, and GM lawyers mulled the implication as far back as 2006.

It’s just that some of the key people in the chain were kind of inept and everyone else just wanted to get home for dinner. Sound anything like where you work? Here are some doozies from the inquiry that anyone involved in crafting corporate culture would do well to study:

The GM Nod
“It was an example of what one top executive described as the ‘GM nod,’ when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action but then leaves the room and does nothing. … Throughout the entire 11-year odyssey, there was no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end.”

Skipping the Easy Route
“Investigators, convinced that the cause of the airbag nondeployments was a complicated mystery still to be unraveled, failed to consider fully the simple and, ultimately correct, cause.”

P&L Protection
“If the Cobalt team wanted an ignition switch replaced, the other vehicle lines that used the ignition switch would request that the cost for their new switches be paid by the Cobalt team.”

The Squeaky Wheel Gets Fired
“One GM employee tasked with writing safety reports to dealerships told investigators he was reluctant to push hard on safety issues because of his perception that his predecessor had been pushed out of the job for doing just that.”

Spin, Spin, Spin
“A PowerPoint presentation from 2008 warned employees to write ‘smart’ and not use ‘judgmental adjectives and speculation.’ Employees were given a number of words to avoid, with suggested replacements: ‘Problem” = ‘issue,’ ‘condition,’ ‘matter’”

Fear of a Paper Trail
“A number of GM employees reported that they did not take notes at all critical safety meetings because they believed GM lawyers did not want such notes taken. … For many meetings—of GM’s many committees—there are no clear records of attendance or of what was discussed or decided.”

Through all of that, one engineer after another decided that cars shutting down while under way wasn’t a safety issue, because the vehicles could still be steered and the brakes still functioned. In the spring of 2007, according to the report, someone finally realized that the key switching off also disabled the airbags. That person, however, was a Wisconsin policeman.

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