Friday, June 27, 2014

Reaction to the Valukas Report on GM Ignition Switch Problems

CEO Mary Barra and Anton Valukas
General Motors released the report* by its outside attorney, Anton Valukas, investigating the hows and whys of the failure to recall Chevy Cobalts due to faulty ignition switches.  We blogged on these issues and the choice of Mr. Valukas on May 19, 2014 and May 22, 2014 indicating our concern that his law firm had prior and ongoing ties to GM.  The report is big, 314 pages, and for some reason is marked as “Confidential, Attorney-Client Privileged”.  This is curious for a report always intended to be public and tends to highlight that Valukas and GM are in a proprietary relationship - perhaps not the level of independence one might expect for this type of assessment.

Our take, in brief, is that the Valukas report documents the "hows" but not the "whys" of what happened.  In fact it appears to be a classic legal analysis of facts based on numerous interviews of “witnesses” and reviews of documentation.  It is heavy with citations and detail but it lacks any significant analysis of the events or insight as to why people did or did not do things.  “Culture” is the designated common mode failure.  But there is no exploration of extent of condition or even consideration of why GM’s safety processes failed in the case of the Cobalt but have been effective in many other situations.  Its recommendations for corrective actions by GM are bland, programmatic and process intensive, and lack any demonstrable linkage to being effective in addressing the underlying issues.  On its part GM has accepted the findings, fired 15 low level engineers and promised a new culture.

The response to the report has reflected the inherent limitations and weaknesses of the assessment.  There have been many articles written about the report that provide useful perspectives.  An example is a column in the Wall Street Journal by Holman Jenkins titled “GM’s Cobalt Report Explains Nothing."**  In a nutshell that sums it up pretty well.  It is well worth reading in its entirety.

Congressional response has also been quite skeptical.  On June 18, 2014 the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, held a hearing with GM CEO Barra and Valukas testifying.  A C-SPAN video of the proceeding is available and is of some interest.***  Questioning by subcommittee members focused on the systemic nature of the problems at GM, how GM hoped to change an entrenched culture, and the credibility of the findings that malfeasance did not extend higher into the organization.

The Center for Auto Safety, perhaps predictably, was not impressed with the report, stating: “The Valukas Report is clearly flawed in accepting GM’s explanation that its engineers and senior managers did not know stalling was safety related.”****

Why doesn’t the Valukas report explain more?  There are several possibilities.  Mr. Valukas is an attorney.  Nowhere in the report is there a delineation of the team assembled by Mr. Valukas or their credentials. It is not clear if the team included expertise on complex organizations, safety management or culture.  We suspect not.  The Center for Auto Safety asserts that the report is a shield for GM against potential criminal liability.  Impossible for us to say.  Congressional skepticism seemed to reflect a suspicion that the limited scope of the investigation was designed to protect senior GM executives.  Again hard to know but the truncated focus of the report is a significant flaw.

What is clear from these reactions to the report is that, at a minimum, it is ineffective in establishing that a full and expert analysis of GM’s management performance has been achieved.  Assigning fault to the GM culture is at once too vague and ultimately too convenient in avoiding more specific accountability.  It also suggests that internally GM has not come to grips with the fundamental problems in its management system and decision making.  If so, it is hard to believe that the corrective actions being taken will be effective in changing that system or assuring better safety performance going forward.

*  A.R. Valukas, "Report to Board of Directors of General Motors Company Regarding Ignition Switch Recalls" (May 29, 2014).

**  H.W. Jenkins, Jr., "GM's Cobalt Report Explains Nothing," Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2014).

***  C-SPAN, "GM Recall Testimony" (June 18, 2014).  Retrieved June 26, 2014.

****  C.Ditlow (Center for Auto Safety), letter to A.R. Valukas (June 17, 2014), p. 3.  Retrieved June 26, 2014.

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