Why GM’s Ignition Defects Couldn’t Have Happened To Anyone Else – Forbes

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It can happen to anybody. Those words jumped out at me from James Stewart’s New York Times business column Saturday. Stewart was writing about how General Motors General Motors has successfully reinvented the Buick line, which has shined despite the black eye GM has received for recalling millions of cars for faulty ignition switches that led to accidents and fatalities.

Noting that Buick has succeeded in attracting younger buyers in recent years, Stewart asked an Arizona Buick dealer if the recalls have put a damper on sales. Her reply:

Our younger buyers don’t seem overly concerned.They remember what Toyota went through and accept that it can happen to anyone. They seem to be more forgiving or maybe just more realistic. It’s our older customers who have been calling in. They’re concerned, and they want an explanation.

More forgiving? More realistic? An investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas revealed that GM knew about a safety defect in its ignition switches for a decade, yet it did nothing to fix the problem. At least 13 people have died in accidents related to the defect, and, by the way, we taxpayers lost some $11 billion keeping GM in business through its 2009 bankruptcy.

What GM experienced is a cultural failing every bit as pervasive as the one within BP BP that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Valukas report showed a culture in which employees failed to repair the ignition defects even as growing evidence showed lives were at risk. It identified a practice known as the “GM salute” in which employees basically pointed fingers of blame at each other and the “GM nod,” described by current CEO Mary Barra in the report as an empty gesture signifying complicity on the part of employees.

Commerce, Science, and Transportation

GM CEO Mary Barra is scheduled for more congressional testimony this week over the recall debacle. (Photo credit: Senate Democrats)

In producing a machine as complex as a modern automobile, it’s inevitable that glitches and defects will occur. Automakers, though, have a responsibility to address these problems quickly and candidly. In fairness, the car dealer in Stewart’s column is trying to sell cars, and she was responding to his concern about how the recalls had affected Buick’s sales. Her response, though, reflects our human tendency to dismiss a catastrophic failure as an anomaly, as a risk that, because it’s rare, could happen anywhere but only occasionally crops up at a company that’s unlucky.

Cultural failings within corporations, though, aren’t the result of bad luck, and they don’t just happen to anyone. When lives are lost, shrugging our collective shoulders and saying “it can happen to anyone” minimizes the need for vigilance. It also dishonors those whose lives were lost to corporate indifference.

Clearly, GM had created a culture in which employees believed ignoring a potentially fatal problem was preferred to raising concerns. GM isn’t alone in this. Inside BP, many workers got the message that boosting production and reducing costs mattered more than safety. Eleven people wound up losing their lives in the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a result. While BP says it’s working to change that culture, others in the oil business still refer to the accident with variations of the “it can happen to anyone” rationale.

The fact is that the ignition switch recalls didn’t happen to just anyone. It happened to GM, and it happened at a particular time for a particular reason. Only by identifying the signs of that cause, and by learning to track them within organizations, can companies like GM make sure something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else.

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