Tough tasks, deadlines loom in GM's safety overhaul

On Wednesday, GM CEO Mary Barra returns to Capitol Hill, along with investigator Anton Valukas, for a second round of questioning by a House oversight committee.
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DETROIT -- In Mary Barra's first public remarks on General Motors' deadly ignition switch defect 31/2 months ago, the CEO declared that GM's reputation "won't be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem."

Now it's walk-the-walk time.

With the story of what went wrong laid out in painful detail in its internal report released this month, GM is setting out to make good on Barra's promise never to let another deadly flaw slip through.

The company is in the early stages of an overhaul of its safety protocols, moving on some 90 fixes prescribed in the report from outside attorney Anton Valukas and GM's May consent decree with safety regulators. The internal moves should get a bright spotlight Wednesday when Barra returns to Capitol Hill, along with Valukas, for a second round of questioning by a House oversight committee.

Most changes target specific communication breakdowns that allowed the defective switch to linger for a decade and contribute to at least 13 deaths, despite passing under the noses of dozens of engineers, lawyers and safety officials.

One remedy: monthly meetings between engineers and lawyers to hash over potential defect trends in specific technical areas, such as power steering. Another remedy: new protocols to determine when news of a potential defect should be elevated to the global safety chief -- and, if warranted, the CEO.

Taken as a whole, the changes represent Job One in Barra's broader task of fixing a culture that the Valukas report found to be light on accountability and heavy on bureaucracy.

During her first visit to Washington in early April, Barra insisted that GM had morphed from a "cost culture" to a "customer culture," in which safety comes first. But the battery of fixes prescribed by regulators and the Valukas report highlights just how much further GM has to go.

More recalls
GM announced another round of recalls last week.

2010-14 Chevrolet Camaro
Key fob may bump ignition key out of position.
464,712 U.S. vehicles

2004-11 Saab 9-3 convertible
Cable in driver's seat belt retractor may break.
28,789 U.S. vehicles

2012 Chevrolet Sonic
Transmission turbine shaft may fracture.
21,567 U.S. vehicles

2014 Buick LaCrosse
Wiring splice in driver's door may corrode and break.
14,765 U.S. vehicles

GM's total 2014 recall campaigns: 38

U.S. vehicles covered*: 14.4 million
*Some vehicles are covered by multiple recall campaigns and may be counted more than once.
Source: GM

GM already has begun making some of the changes, led by Jeff Boyer, the engineer whom Barra appointed in March to the newly created position of global safety chief. For example, a new program encourages employees to speak up if they spot potential safety problems. 

Also, a tripling of the number of vehicle investigators, to about 60, has led to a blitz of new recalls. 

GM must keep up the pace. The consent decree requires that by late September, for example, GM must demonstrate to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it has built a more functional analytics system to track complaints, incidents, lawsuits and warranty claims. The company will meet with NHTSA for "an exercise to discuss hypothetical scenarios" -- essentially a war game to neutralize the threat of potential vehicle defects. 

Meeting deadlines and rewriting policy are only half the battle, says Jeffrey Liker, a professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan. Liker, author of several books on Toyota, including Toyota Under Fire, which details the company's comeback from its unintended acceleration crisis of 2009-10, says Barra and her executive team must get buy-in from the engineers, lawyers, safety officials and others who will carry out the changes day to day. 

"The challenge is going from rhetoric to true action," Liker says. "It's very easy to change the organizational chart, fire a few people and create some new positions or committees. The harder problem is changing the actual working-level safety culture of the company." 

Another risk: The Valukas report didn't catch everything. One former GM engineering executive who reviewed the report said he was puzzled that the recommendations are geared toward U.S. product development and safety regulations, while many of GM's vehicle platforms are developed overseas. 

Dozens of the Valukas recommendations aim to knock down the silos that delayed action for years and prevented GM's own people from fully understanding "how their own cars were built," the report says. 

For example, if an engineer conducting a field assessment can't get to the bottom of a component failure, the engineer must schedule a conference call with in-house and outside lawyers to discuss the problem. 

The former insider said engineers "might like the extra pair of eyes" when trying to troubleshoot potential defects. 

"In most cases, rank-and-file engineers have been starved for that sort of interaction," the source says. 

The Valukas changes also stress greater individual accountability, after the report found that, on the ignition switch problem, "no single person owned any decision." 

For example, investigators were at a loss to determine which engineer closed an internal inquiry into the problematic switch in 2005 without taking any action to fix it. The recommendations say such an inquiry "cannot be closed without action absent clear sign-off by named individuals." 

But the most important change might be a "persistent message" from GM brass to employees that it's good to express safety concerns, says Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School who has studied corporate safety culture. 

"It's so hard for people in a hierarchical system to speak up about problems, you have to go out of your way to make it easy for them," she says. "They have to be able to almost trip over the opportunity." 

Edmondson views that message as serving as the corporate equivalent of the andon cord, the safety-stop rope that assembly line workers can yank if they spot a problem. 

"The message has to be 'Pull it,'" she says. "'We'll celebrate it when you do.'"

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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