Until last month, the vehicles under recall -- including the Chevrolet Cobalt, rated least reliable small car in 2006 by Consumer Reports, and the Saturn Ion, Edmunds.com's choice as the sixth-worst car ever sold in America -- were merely unpleasant memories that today's GM was eager to erase.
But documents that have emerged in conjunction with the recall and related lawsuits have also spotlighted a sluggish management culture that kept urgent quality and safety issues from receiving attention from the highest levels of the company.
As it grapples with the fallout from design issues first identified a decade ago, GM's new executive team, and Barra in particular, must squarely confront that culture issue with a clear sense of urgency.
Barra, who replaced Dan Akerson as CEO on Jan. 15, said in her message last week that GM "acted without hesitation" when the matter "was brought to my team a few weeks ago." A spokesman declined to say whether that meant no one in the management team was aware before that of any ignition problems with the affected vehicles.
After first letting Alan Batey, GM's North American president, speak for the company in a nationally published apology, Barra last week said she has assembled and taken charge of an executive team to direct GM's response to the recall. In her message, she told employees that doing "what is best for our customer" will come above all else.
GM has begun what Barra promised would be an "unvarnished" internal review. A spokesman confirmed that the company has hired an outside law firm to lead the inquiry but would not identify members of the recall-response team Barra formed.
She and Mark Reuss, GM's chief of global product development, are devoting considerable time to the matter and are treating it with more urgency than executives have shown during previous recalls, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
"That's the thing about being in charge," said Robert Wiseman, a professor of strategic management at Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business. "You walk into a job like that and have your agenda that you want to do, but things happen that take your time up and keep you distracted from the agenda. ... Being the figurehead of a company, you've got to solve problems that you didn't create."