Barra says recall crisis stemmed from GM's communication breakdowns

Barra: "You can't possibly know what every individual is doing."

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DETROIT -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra said in an interview published today that she didn’t know when GM’s ignition switch defect surfaced because the company is so vast and communication between GM’s 219,000 employees -- 326,000 at the time the problem emerged -- broke down.

“In product engineering we had over 30,000 employees,” Barra told Forbes in an interview posted on the magazine’s Web site. “You have to count on each design release engineer and person in that organization doing their job and elevating issues as they occur and there’s a structure to do that … You can’t possibly know what every individual is doing.”

The recalled ignition switches in 2.6 million vehicles are linked to 13 deaths – and trial lawyers and safety advocates have said the figure is higher. On top of an internal investigation into the matter, there are multiple federal investigations looking at the way GM handled the defective switches and why it took so long to recall the affected vehicles. The results of the nearly three-month long internal investigation could be released as early as next week.

In April, GM tried to be proactive about the communication problems by creating the Speak Up for Safety program, designed to give recognition to the employees who find ways to make vehicles safer and who say something when they see a potential safety risk.

“There were silos, and as information was known in one part of the business, for instance the legal team, it didn’t necessarily get communicated as effectively as it should have been to other parts, for instance the engineering team,” Barra told a Congressional committee in April.

Barra, who served as head of global product development for GM before becoming CEO in January, also told Congress that a “cost culture” in the early 2000s at the company contributed to the ignition switch problem.

“Look at the work we were asking people to do as we were restructuring, and shrinking and taking costs out,” Barra told Forbes.

There has been some media speculation that Barra was appointed CEO because GM needed a woman at the helm to take the fall. She says there is no merit to the theory.

“I believe this issue came up, and we learned about it, the leadership learned about it on Jan. 31 and we’re dealing with it,” Barra told Forbes. “And it just happened to be two weeks after I officially came into this job.”

Barra also discussed why she met with victims' families in Washington before her testimony before lawmakers.

"Because they made the request, and I put myself in their shoes and I thought they deserved to be heard," she said. "It was difficult, but it’s a difficult situation they’re in … I thought they needed to know that General Motors cared, and that we listened."

For the entire interview, click here.

You can reach Nora Naughton at nnaughton@crain.com.


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