|GM CEO Mary Barra|
In a general sense this sounds all too familiar as the standard response to a significant safety issue. Launch an independent investigation to gather the facts and figure out what happened, who knew what, who decided what and why. The current estimate is that it will take almost two months for this process to be completed. Also familiar is that accountability inevitably starts (and often ends) at the engineering and low level management levels. To wit, GM has already announced that two engineers involved in the ignition switch issues have been suspended.
But somewhat buried in Barra’s Congressional testimony is an unusually revealing comment. According to the Wall Street Journal, Barra said “senior executives in the past were intentionally not involved in details of recalls so as to not influence them.”* Intentionally not involved in decisions regarding recalls - recalls which can involve safety defects and product liability issues and have significant public and financial liabilities. Why would you not want the corporation's executives to be involved? And if one is to believe the rest of Barra’s testimony, it appears executives were not even aware of these issues.
Well, what if executives were involved in these critical decisions - what influence could they have that GM would be afraid of? Certainly if executive involvement would assure that technical assessments of potential safety defects were rigorous and conservative - that would not be undue influence. So that leaves the other possibility - that involvement of executives could inhibit or constrain technical assessments from assuring an appropriate priority for safety. This would be tantamount to the chilling effect popularized in the nuclear industry. If management involvement creates an implicit pressure to minimize safety findings, there goes the safety conscious work environment and safety.
If keeping executives out of the decision process is believed to yield “better” decisions, it says some pretty bad things about either their competence or ethics. Having executives involved should at least ensure that they are aware and knowledgeable of potential product safety issues and in a position to proactively assure that decisions and actions are appropriate. What might be the most likely explanation is that executives don’t want the responsibility and accountability for these types of decisions. They might prefer to remain protected at the safety policy level but leave the messy reality of comporting those dictates with real world business considerations to lower levels of the organization. Inevitably accountability rolls downhill to somebody in the engineering or lower management ranks.
One thing that is certain. Whatever the substance and process of GM’s decision, it is not transparent, probably not well documented, and now requires a major forensic effort to reconstitute what happened and why. This is not unusual and it is the standard course in other industries including nuclear generation. Wouldn’t we be better off if decisions were routinely subject to the rigor of contemporaneous recording including how complex and uncertain safety issues are decided in the context of other business priorities, and by whom?
* J.B. White and J. Bennett, "Some at GM Brass Told of Cobalt Woe," Wall Street Journal online (Apr. 11, 2014)