CEO Mary Barra briefing journalists before GM's annual meeting this week in Detroit.

Photo credit: REUTERS
KRISHNAN ANANTHARAMAN

The hidden brilliance of Barra's cliches

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Krishnan Anantharaman is a news editor for Automotive News in Detroit.
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DETROIT -- Mary Barra has been frustrating.

She is a historic figure in the auto industry, leading a company that is at a historic juncture. We’ve been watching her, waiting for her to rise to the occasion by articulating some grand vision for General Motors.

And yet the best we’ve heard from Barra is a bland, canned line about “putting the customer at the center of everything we do.”

Well, duh. What company doesn’t do that?

GM, as it turns out.

Call me naive, but I pored through the Valukas report’s 325 pages in search of at least one passage about an activist employee, a whistleblower who was determined to defy the boss, dig through the secret files, assemble the clues and take on the system in relentless pursuit of the truth. Someone whom Meryl Streep or Russell Crowe or Kevin Costner would play in the upcoming film Ignition.

Someone -- anyone -- who put the customer at the center of everything -- or anything -- he or she did at GM.

No luck.

Instead there are passages like this, excerpted from a June 25, 2005, missive, referring to a dealer bulletin about the risk that a bump of the knee could inadvertently shut off the car:

This is a safety/recall issue if ever there was one. Forget the bulletin. I have found the cause of the problem. Not suggested causes as listed in bulletin. The problem is the ignition turn switch is poorly installed. Even with the slightest touch, the car will shut off in motion. I don’t have to list to you the safety problems that may happen, besides an accident or death, a car turning off while doing a high speed must cause engine and other problems in the long haul. I am forwarding this letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as I firmly believe that this ignition switch needs to be recalled, reexamined and corrected.

As many as nine lives may have been saved had the content of that memorandum been heeded immediately by the higher-ups at GM.

But it wasn’t an internal memo. It was a complaint letter from a customer, sent directly to GM headquarters.

Despite this warning and others, the ignition switch problem “continued to be categorized as a customer convenience issue,” the report says, and consequently was assigned a lower priority. GM addressed it with a Preliminary Information, a mild advisory that goes to dealers, not customers. Later, it followed with a Technical Service Bulletin — again, sent to dealers and regulators, but not customers — whose wording made it unlikely that a customer would have the problem resolved.

Two things are wrong with this picture, and indeed with the entirety of GM, as depicted by the Valukas report: first, that GM regarded the prospect of engine cutoff as a customer-convenience issue rather than a safety issue; and second, that a customer-convenience issue automatically took a low priority.

Customers aren’t always right. But they are the people who buy the industry’s products and provide its revenue. And they are the ones who stand to get injured or die when those products are unsafe. That makes even a wrong customer worth listening to.

So let’s give credit to Barra. “Putting the customer at the center of everything we do” is about as banal a statement as a CEO can make. But for GM, we now see, it represents a grand vision after all.

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com.

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