It's a well-known tale by now: Mary Barra was just weeks into her job as the first female CEO of a global automaker when General Motors was hit by a safety crisis now linked to more than 30 deaths. The ignition-switch recall and the torrent of nearly 30 million called back vehicles that ensued has consumed much of Barra’s new executive team’s attention this year. But she feels good about GM’s handling of the most pressing task: a restructuring of product safety to prevent another deadly defect from slipping through. Now it’s on to broader cultural change, which she says will take five years. Barra spoke with reporters and editors at Automotive News Europe sister publication Automotive News.
Since former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas’ report on GM’s handling of the recall crisis came out there’s been a lot of talk about the need to change GM’s culture. What changes have been made?
Culture change is not a weekly or monthly thing. It’s going to take time. A lot of people say culture change takes 10 years. We want to cut that in half. The way I look at it, it’s changing behaviors. You and I can decide to do something. If we leave the room and start doing it, that’s a behavior change. But you’ve got to do it again and again. The actual action is a lot more important than the words.
You’ve said that you want the recall crisis to drive change. Give an example of employees living that message.
Whether it’s engineering or manufacturing or supplier quality, the way [safety chief] Jeff Boyer’s position is operating. The fact we’ve put the added investigators and problem solvers into Jeff’s organization. They’re kind of a beacon that the organization goes to with concerns. And they’re seeing those get resolved. I’d say another proof point is, once a [safety] issue is opened, we actually have a fairly good trend of quickly getting to the root cause of an issue and deciding: Is this an issue we need to take action on? The organization is taking each issue seriously and either closing it out with a very clearly understood reason why it’s OK to close, or solving it and taking an action.
Suppliers, dealers and others say that GM executives say the right things about valuing relationships, but it doesn’t filter down through sales or purchasing. How does GM drive that message through those lower levels?
In some of those cases, you have to say: “I’ve got to align my metrics with the way I really want people to behave.” If someone says, “OK, I hear you saying you want me to do X, but you really still want me to do Y -- and I’m going to get measured on Y -- I’m going to keep doing the behaviors that get me Y.” As we set up performance objectives for next year, we’re talking about changing some of the things that will be on people’s performance reviews and their objectives. That is something that is tracked and measured, which will start to drive different behaviors.