DETROIT -- In the wake of last month's recall of 1.6 million 2003-07 small cars worldwide for an ignition switch defect linked to 12 deaths, General Motors seemed determined to insulate itself from the fallout by characterizing the delayed response as symptomatic of the old GM's problems.
"Today's GM," North American boss Alan Batey said in a contrite statement then, "is committed to doing business differently and better."
But by last week, it became clear that GM's executives weren't satisfied with the new GM's approach to safety either. CEO Mary Barra, signaling a need for more urgency and accountability within the company, vowed renewed vigilance on safety on the same day the company announced three recalls simultaneously for full-sized vans, large crossovers and the Cadillac XTS sedan.
The additional recalls, she said, were the result of a stepped-up review of pending safety issues.
"Our system for deciding and managing recalls is going to change because of this," Barra said in a video message to employees. "And we are using this opportunity to change much more about our business."
In the loop
Barra also appointed longtime GM engineer Jeff Boyer, 58, vice president of global safety, a newly created post aimed at keeping senior executives in the loop more on safety and recall decisions.
Last month's recall and Barra's actions since have recast the narrative emerging from GM since its exit from government ownership in December and its transition to a new CEO. Former CEO Dan Akerson, during a speech a week before his retirement in January, boasted that GM's ratings for quality and safety had moved from laggard status under his watch to among the industry's best.
"This is transformative, in terms of how we're perceived," he said in a speech to a business group in Detroit.
But GM's quality and safety performance are now back under the microscope, with much of that scrutiny coming from the company itself.
Some industry observers dismissed Boyer's appointment as damage control, a way to show the public and regulators that it is moving swiftly to fix any systemic problems that might have allowed the ignition-switch problem to linger for more than a decade before the recall.
But Barra insisted that Boyer's position is the first in a series of steps GM will take to fortify the safety of its vehicles. Boyer will brief the CEO regularly and will be tasked with overseeing "a closer review on safety that will become a permanent process of this company," she told reporters last week.
Testing 'to failure'
Even so, Barra, who was GM's global product chief for three years before becoming CEO on Jan. 15, insists GM has "dramatically improved" its safety-validation processes in recent years, which has led to better initial quality and durability ratings for its vehicles. For example, she said engineers in recent years have begun testing components "to failure," a more rigorous analysis of how vehicles will hold up in the hands of customers.
GM also is tracking customer feedback more closely by taking over management of its call centers, which had been outsourced. Executives say safety-related complaints and questions now are routed directly to designers and engineers, which should help uncover potential problems and devise solutions faster.
GM product development chief Mark Reuss noted that GM in the past few years has certified more than 2,000 engineers as high-level practitioners of the Six Sigma approach to quality improvement, a set of techniques pioneered by Motorola in the 1980s that aims to stamp out potential causes of defects.
Last week's acceleration of the three safety recalls was a sign that GM is serious about operating with a greater sense of urgency, says Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Massachusetts research and safety-advocacy company.
But Kane says GM's cautious approach to last month's recall announcement showed that it hasn't made enough progress. After announcing on Feb. 13 the initial recall of 619,000 U.S. cars for the faulty ignition switch, it took GM nearly two weeks to expand the recall to nearly 750,000 additional U.S. cars across four other models, amid pressure from safety advocates and the media.
"That was a clear signal that we're still dealing with a company that has some problems," Kane says. "That didn't reflect well on new GM's approach."
Many observers see the ignition switch as symptomatic of GM's historically bureaucratic culture. Multiple investigations under way by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two congressional committees and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to news reports, eventually could shed more light on whether GM's handling of the recall reflects systemic problems or an isolated case.
But veterans of GM's massive product development enterprise view the case as a befuddling aberration that defied a carefully regimented system designed to prevent flaws from slipping through.
"As a chief engineer, I was constantly in touch with the safety guys," says one former GM insider who wasn't involved with the handling of the ignition switch. "A potential safety defect was an all-hands-on-deck situation."
He said: "I can't wrap my head around how something like this could have dragged on so long."
• 303,000 full-sized vans: 2009-14 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana units to rework instrument-panel material to meet head-impact standards. GM says it has stopped deliveries until a fix is developed and parts are available.
• 63,900 full-sized sedans: 2013-14 Cadillac XTS units to fix a problem with brake booster corrosion that can lead to overheating. A spokesman said GM knows of 2 vehicle fires linked to the defect.
• 1.18 million crossovers: 2008-13 Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia, 2009-13 Chevrolet Traverse and 2008-10 Saturn Outlook units to repair a wiring problem that could trigger an airbag warning light that, left unattended, could lead airbags to fail to deploy.