Monday, July 13, 2015

Fixing General Motors’ Culture—Any Lessons for Nuclear?

GM Headquarters
In a recent interview* with LinkedIn, General Motors CEO Mary Barra discussed her plan for fixing GM’s culture.  The interviewer asked what needs to change, what about known problems like the “GM nod”** and the siloed organization, and what is the key to the improvement process?  The following quotes are excerpted from her answers.  Do they suggest a clear vision for the future culture and/or a satisfactory action plan?

“. . . get everyone engaged, working together, and bringing the best ideas forward[.]”

“. . . I never accepted the GM nod.  If somebody said in a meeting they were going to do something, I expect you to do it.”

“We've got to model [working across the organization].”

“[We have to] own each other's problems.”

“So our goal is to be the safety leader. We're really driving a zero-defect mentality.”

“If we can get in a room and really, you know, argue it out constructively and everybody's views get on the table, we'll make better decisions.”

“. . . we've got to earn the trust of every single employee by demonstrating the way we behave.”

Our Perspective

We realize this was not some carefully crafted article for the Harvard Business Review but there are too many soft spots in this recipe for fixing the culture to let this interview slide by without comment.

Let’s begin with the positives.  Barra promotes respect for ideas; that’s a positive feedback loop and a good thing.  Senior management modeling desired behavior and working to earn employee trust are both essential for cultural change.  Safety leadership is certainly a laudable goal.  

The nod is a little more problematic.  Maybe Barra never accepted the nod but plenty of other folks did.  Is modeling the desired behavior sufficient to create change?  How long will it take?  What else might need to be done?

Shared ownership of problems is a good start but how does GM establish, model and inculcate a process that obtains permanent problem resolutions going forward?

Barra also believes an insider (like her) is better suited for changing the culture than an outsider.  We agree an insider may have a better handle on recognizing when employees are trying to spin a situation in their favor but an outsider can bring a clear view of the performance gap between an organization’s current state (e.g., its characteristics, priorities and processes) and where it needs to be.

Some ingredients are missing.  Most importantly, there is no mention of the powerful cost/finance feedback loop that contributed to GM’s quality problems.  Wringing pennies out of product costs was a major goal for years.  What roles will cost consciousness and management financial incentives play going forward?

In another area, how is the management decision making process changing other than arguing things out?

Bottom line: There are no lessons for nuclear in the GM CEO’s outline of her cultural change initiative.  In fact, her proclamations sound just like nuclear managers’ braying when they try to convince regulators, the media and the public that something, anything is happening to address perceived cultural issues.  But what usually isn’t happening is some in-depth analysis of how their organizational system functions.


*  D. Roth, “Mary Barra's Got a Plan for Fixing GM's Culture (and Only an Insider Can Pull it Off),” LinkedIn interview (July 6, 2015).  Safetymatters co-founder Bob Cudlin first spotted and called attention to this article.

**  The “GM nod” was “where employees would commit to being on board with a decision, then ignore it [later.]”

3 comments:

  1. Most cultures are spring-return to the way they were at their worst.

    The serfs outlive the czar.

    A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It appears Bill has embraced his cynicism.

    Where is an example of an in-depth analysis of how someone's organizational system functions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the safety culture space, a few years ago our Bob Cudlin developed a system dynamics model of a nuclear organization. It includes all the major variables that interact with SC, including trust, goal conflicts, CAP effectiveness, SCWE, available resources and others. The goal was to create a model that could be mapped against an actual organization, adjusted as necessary, and then used for management awareness and hands-on training. You can read all about it at nuclearsafetysim.com.

      Another example of a model of a real organization is Nancy Leveson’s 2005 work at NASA. This was an extensive consulting engagement. It is an example of something we were trying to get away from: model development, application and interpretation by a high priestess and her acolytes with no interaction between the model and the clients. The work was documented in “Risk Analysis of NASA Independent Technical Authority” (June 2005).

      Delete

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