KEITH CRAIN

Changing GM will take time

COMMENTARY
Keith Crain is editor-in-chief of Automotive News
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Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally was in the right place at the right time.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra may or may not be in the right place at the right time.

After working at one company for a third of a century as she has, it's difficult, maybe impossible, to effect the changes GM needs.

GM's management team needs a lot of help from nonexecutive Chairman Tim Solso and President Dan Ammann.

Their strength is that they are from outside. GM needs outsiders to shake things up.

It's not difficult for Barra to understand what has to happen. In a philosophical sense, it's obvious what has to be done. But it's tough to see the forest for the trees, and GM has an awful lot of trees.

GM released a devastating report from former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas after his internal investigation into GM's delayed recalls. With it, GM fired 15 employees.

But then, in a move that might have been expected at the old GM, the company was reluctant to name the fired employees.

That is not a great first move toward a new GM with more transparency.

Infusing a new philosophy into all levels of GM is almost impossible. Changing the attitudes of the top hundred executives, or perhaps a thousand, is tough but possible.

But the tens of thousands of other employees will probably keep doing things the way they learned. Becoming a change agent after decades of hands-on experience is a real challenge.

Not so for ex-Cummins boss Solso, who came to the party with a completely different set of experiences, nor for ex-investment banker Ammann, who brought other diverse experiences.

Barra might want to rely on them. Her instincts might be right, but her long GM experience could lead her down the wrong path.

The Valukas report gave GM a wake-up call. GM has started the journey but taken only the first step.

It's difficult to change a culture that successfully existed for a century.

GM may have learned a lesson, but change won't happen immediately.

The trick for GM is to avoid unrealistic expectations. It could take a decade. It might even take a generation. Dramatic change will not happen overnight.

You can reach Keith Crain at kcrain@crain.com.


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