Thursday, May 22, 2014

GM Part 3 - Lawyers, Decision Making and...Simulation?

The GM story continues to unfold on a daily basis.  We’ve already lost track of the number of recalls as it appears that any and every possible safety defect from prior years has been added to the recall list.  This is reminiscent of the “problem” nuclear plants in the 1990s - NRC mandated improvement programs precipitated an avalanche of condition reports into the plants’ Corrective Action Programs, requiring immense resources and time to sort out and prioritize the huge volume of issues.

In our prior post on GM product safety issues, we critiqued the structure of management’s independent review being conducted by attorney Anton Valukas based in part on the likelihood that GM’s legal department would be a subject of the review.  Asking the chairman of a law firm with a long standing relationship with GM, to pull this off seemed, at a minimum, to be unnecessary, and potentially could undermine the credibility of the assessment.  Now we see in further reporting of the GM issues by the New York Times* that in fact GM’s lawyers are becoming a key focus of the investigation.  The implication is that GM’s lawyers may have been the gate keepers on information related to the Cobalt ignition switches and/or been enablers of a decision process that did not result in aggressive action.

Of greater interest is the Consent Order** entered into by GM and the United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The headline was the $35 million civil penalty but there were more interesting nuggets within the order.  Among a series of required actions by GM to improve timeliness and data to support safety defect evaluations were three actions specifically focusing on safety decision making.  One is to ensure that safety issues are expeditiously brought to the attention of “committees and individuals with authority to make safety recall decisions.” (p. 10)***  Second, GM will have to meet with the NHTSA on a monthly basis for one year to review its decision making on potential safety issues.  And third,

“GM shall meet with NHTSA no later than 120 calendar days after execution of this Consent Order to conduct simulations—i.e., an exercise to discuss hypothetical scenarios, for the purpose of assessing the effectiveness of the improvements [in processes and analytics to identify safety-related defects]…” (p. 9, emphasis added)  We find the emphasis of the Consent Order both fascinating and appropriate.  It emphasizes decision making - the process, timeliness, engagement of appropriate participants, and transparency - as essential to assuring appropriate outcomes.  It opens that process to scrutiny by the NHTSA through monthly reviews of actual decisions.  And most strikingly, it requires the conduct of decision simulations to verify the effectiveness of the improvements.

The provisions of the Consent Order establish a fundamentally new and better approach to rectifying deficiencies in safety performance and are consistent with themes we have been advocating for some time.  It departs from the simplistic - blame some individuals, reinforce expectations, emphasize values and improve processes - catechism that is pursued within the nuclear industry and others as well.  It seems to recognize that safety related decisions constitute the essence of assuring safety.  Rather than just reviewing and investigating bad outcomes, the Consent Order opens the door to making the results of all ongoing decisions transparent and reviewable.  Further it even calls for practicing the decision making process - through simulations - to verify the effectiveness of the process and the results.  Practicing complex and nuanced safety decisions to improve the process and decision making skills - what an idea.

It is no news flash to our readers that we have not only advocated these approaches, we have developed prototype tools for these purposes.  We have made the NuclearSafetySim simulation tool available for almost a year via this blog and linked to its website.  What has been the result?  While it is clear there have been many viewings of these materials, there has not been a single inquiry or follow-up by the nuclear industry, the NRC or INPO.****  At the same time there have been no initiatives within those groups to develop new or improved tools and methods for improving safety management.  Why?

*  B. Vlasic, “Inquiry by General Motors Is Said to Focus on Its Lawyers,” New York Times (May 17, 2014).  Retrieved May 22, 2014. 

**  Consent Order between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and General Motors Company re: NHTSA’s Timeliness Query TQ14-001 (May 16, 2014).

***  Including GM’s Executive Field Action Decision Committee and Field Performance Evaluation Recommendation Committee. (p. 9)

****  Ironically, the only serious interest has been expressed within the oil/gas industry which appears much more open to exploring innovative approaches.

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