Recall at G.M. Is Early Trial for New Chief

Facing the recall of 1.6 million cars weeks into her tenure as chief executive, Mary T. Barra has taken the lead role in handling the crisis, starting an internal inquiry and ordering a rare public apology.

Comments: 62

  1. Way back in 1991, Gene Hackman starred in a riveting legal thriller called "Class Action", about an auto company that cynically chose not deal with a vehicle defect causing serious accidents, because it was cheaper to pay the insurance and/or court claims than to recall and fix the vehicles. The whole movie was about exposing this corporate cynicism, and its human and financial cost, in the climactic courtroom scenes.
    Great movie: rent it, watch it, and decide for yourself if this is the same cynical scenario being played out in real life right now at GM. Ms. Barra was the head of "Global Manufacturing and Engineering" and had no knowledge of this enduring defect? I can hear the Seven Dwarfs singing in the background.

  2. G.M. officials had known for a decade about this problem, so obviously Ms. Barra's 30-year history with GM tells me she had to be well aware of this problem. Heads will roll, and it'll likely be hers.

  3. Sounds like Ms. Barra is handling a tough situation perfectly. But carp away Mr. Schiffer.

  4. Why is Schiffer making public comments of this nature?

  5. The real reason automakers wait so long to recall so long is that they are waiting for the owners of most of the defective vehicles to either junk the vehicle or repair their vehicles at their own expense. Notice that GM is recalling cars made in 2004 in 2014. If the original owner has replaced the ignition at their own expense and then sold the vehicle, too bad. The first car I owned was a Ford Taurus. It had engine motor mounts that corroded. I spent $ 1000 repairing them and then sold my vehicle. Ford issued a recall when my car would have been 9 years old. I never got a refund of the money I spent because I no longer owned that vehicle. The new owner never got anything because he had not spent the repair money. No wonder the only way to sell American cars is to people who can only afford cars with subprime loans. I will never buy a GM, Ford or Chrysler as long as I live because I know through bitter experience that their executives always lie and the quarterly profit and making their bonus is always more important than the life and safety of their customers. They are putting up this dog and pony show today to deflect attention but the next time, it will be the same sequence of events.

  6. The fact that senior management was not aware of a situation that has caused 13 deaths should result in at least two things.
    1. Criminal indictments for those found responsible for failing to report the problem in a timely manner (see "coverup")
    2. A substantial reduction in the number of vehicles manufactured, sold and purchased by this government and UAW supported faulty enterprise.
    As for Ms. Barra, give her a break. She sounds like the best thing that's happened to this outfit since Charlie Wilson. Sorry, I'm dating myself.

  7. People die in cars all the time. There were 34,000 auto accident deaths in the US in 2012. GM has about 20% of the US market, which means that we should expect about 6,800 deaths each year in GM cars. While 13 deaths over a decade are a personal tragedy, they are statistically insignificant in determining whether something is wrong.

    So, please let's not rush to put people in jail.

  8. Haven't we seen this story 500 times in the last 5 years, with nouns like "automaker", "banker", "manufacturer", "insurer" permuted? How can these execs remember where they put their shoes last night.

  9. Oh the poetry of your comment.

  10. "But since that call, interviews with company officials show a picture of an automaker grappling with a crisis on a day-to-day basis, with an untested chief executive."

    That sentence implies a chaotic and ineffectual response, but the story goes on to describe a methodical and thorough process. It sounds like Ms. Barra, a seasoned executive who is hardly untested, is doing the right thing.

  11. "But according to G.M., top leaders were insulated from many of the company’s inner workings, including active safety reviews."

    nice to know things have not changed at the American car makers. This is why I never have, and never will, purchase an automobile made by GM, Ford or Chrysler. Sure, I could save a few thousand dollars over a German vehicle, but my wife and 2 kids lives are at stake....

  12. Hard to believe that I am the 1st commenter to comment on this article.
    Anyway GM should have gone bankrupt. They have a Corporate culture that is inherently corrupt and that will necessitate another bail out sooner or later after the next bunch of incompetent greedy executives take over. NOt unlike our banks.
    I will never buy a car from GM.

  13. Problems of this kind are endemic to big organizations, particularly big organizations that have been under serious financial stress, and make complex products which can cause safety issues.

    If you think this problem is "bad," think about the safety issues with aircraft, or nuclear reactors.

    Corporate culture inevitably clashes with good "safety culture;" very few companies can keep an appropriate management focus on safety.

    The only way it does happen is some combination of customers making it extremely clear to the company that safety is their primary concern, and external safety oversight. It is reasonable to ask why didn't the NTSHA know about the statistics of these problems and ask questions?

  14. "I didn't know anything about it" seems to be a common excuse leaders use when something goes wrong. Either they're lying or they're incompetent.

  15. GM's silence on this defect is no surprise to me. For years I tried to buy US made cars to support the US economy. It proved disastrous,

    I had the misfortune of buying a Chevy Vegas & Malibu, and Ford Taurus. All of these cars suffers from crippling defects to their engines and transmissions. No remediation was offered by Ford or Chevy. Apparently, it was cheaper to advertise reliability than have it. This pattern continues today.

    I switched to Toyotas, and never had another problem. .....

  16. Don't you feel for the those poor senior executives who were not informed by those secretive engineers.

    On the other hand the senior executives had 10 years to ask "have we killed any of our customers recently due to a faulty component".

    Could it possibly be plausible deniability, I did not know, I was not told, I did not ask.

    Clearly in the past the lower ranks have got the message that bringing potential recalls to senior management is not going to put your career on the fast track.

    In fairness to Mary Barra it appears that she has changed the culture where that getting these issues actioned is the right approach.

    It's a start.

  17. Was there study recently showing that, when times are tough for big companies, they're more likely to hire women for top jobs?

  18. I used to work for EDS when it was owned by GM. I developed software for Chevrolet. I wouldn't own any American name brand if they were giving them away. Two Honda's and a Toyota in my garage.

  19. GM should have been out of business along time ago, like any other company that goes bankrupt. Then we would not be dealing with a recall.

  20. When the Obama Administration put GM thru bankruptcy, as I recall, the company was forced to reduce its number of vice presidents (and their retinues?) by 25%.

    This story suggests that excessive bureaucracy remains a problem. Hopefully, part of the solution will be to cut a significant number of administrative positions and their support staff.

    Analysts always discuss labor costs, because that is easy, and supplied by these bureaucrats on a spoon. But I long for comparable reporting on administrative costs per car, and GM's success in reducing that!

    Mary Barra seems on the right track, and doing this more openly than we have seen before. Hopefully she will use this to further streamline GM, and not just apply band-aids. And above all, go where the facts lead.

  21. Ms. Barra & Mr. Lutz are both insiders who came up through the GM bureaucracy, don't expect any honesty or shame from either. This is how things were always done at GM and this is how things will always be done!

  22. Much of this seems problematic. A "trained engineer" will know one technical area well. It is not a good reason to trust a CEO's judgement. Plus, Ms. Barra's 'training' is all within GM's culture of arrogance. If you follow GM, you will see that the GM managers and employees act as if they are above the law. GM is a bully. Based on GM's culture, it is very plausable for a manager to be told that GM is braking the law and then the manager arragontanly ignores the problem. Please look closely. the evidence suggests that GM is only interested in putting money in the pockets of the UAW, their other employees and retirees.

  23. Years ago when I was in graduate school I had a relatively new Buick that had numerous ignition problems--difficult to turn on or off. Various GM dealerships looked at it and claimed nothing was wrong. One Texas-hot day I was in the middle of nowhere about 100 miles from Austin and the car just stopped running--on the highway. I could do nothing to start it and then I began to smell fire. I fled from the car and watched it burn--the engine had caught fire. A passerby took me into a small nearby town and I waited while the local dealership towed in the car's remains. While the dealership was on the phone with GM to ascertain warranty information I sat in a small outdoor cafe across the street waiting for a friend to drive from Austin to rescue me, and a lizard from the tree overhead dropped into my grilled cheese sandwich. The dealership informed me that the car was a few days out of warranty and I was out of luck. I had no money to replace the car so I rode the bus to UT everyday and walked everywhere else until I finished school, completed my dissertation, and landed a job in California. Only after I signed a contract with my new employer was I able to buy a new car--a Hyundai which never had any problems. While it didn't really hurt me to ride the bus and walk, the memorable day when a lizard fell into my sandwich ensured that the Buick was my first and last American-made car.

  24. I really don't think you can blame GM for a lizard falling into your sandwich. And it's an old American custom that a few days after any machine's warranty is up, it will fail, catch fire, or explode; that's planned obsolescence for ya, brought to you by capitalist ideology.

  25. Check out the Monte Carlo produced in the 2000's if you want to see another batch of defective vehicles. It too has the ability to randomly stop at any speed. You'll see plenty of listings for very inexpensive Monte's in showroom condition. Owners are afraid to drive them, and GM won't recall them.

  26. I think Ms. Barra is handling this situation admirably, actually far better than many other major manufacturers have handled their recalls. Taking responsibility, investigating how this occured, and taking steps to avoid a similar mechanical system failure, are all better than most companys' practice of minimizing public relations damage and getting back to business asap.

    Also I don't find it credible that as a senior executive she would have known about the malfunction. That's the job of the safety team, and their report upwards doubtless stated that everything was acceptable; the only thing an executive could do to double check all the staff under them is destruct-test the car themselves, and that's not standard procedure.

  27. This latest problem with some GM cars is nothing new. Problems in the past have been swept under the rug until someone had the courage to speak out and force GM had to address the problem. Theirs in my opinion has always been about the bottom line at the expense of the consumer.

  28. Same old General Motors.

  29. Fail. Mary needs to learn that one of the key responsibilities of a CEO is to be the public face and voice of the company. This is an early indication she is way over her head. Where is she and what is she doing?

  30. With GM its a feature, not a bug and sometimes it involves death to those who bought the brand. I wish it was just a brand, but after 78 cars in family .. this is SOS with them and later with the Used Car market. Might not be deaths connected, but will cost consumers and the makers just get a tap and we await the next article. It is an ethical issue that becomes a buyer or safety problem. Should be more than wrist slap.

  31. If I were to buy an American made automobIle, it would be from Ford. They did not accept any bailout money and they continue to make the best automobile in the USA.

  32. Looks like even critical feedback doesn't easily make its way upward through the GM hierarchy.

  33. It is not surprising the senior management at GM did not know about this defect. Most people, including senior leaders, don't like to hear bad news. And there is a human tendency to blame the messenger. Successful middle managers figure this out quickly, and bad news very often doesn't percolate to the top.

    Sometimes the problems go away, and all is well. And sometimes they don't.

    It is far too early to hold Ms. Barra accountable for the problems that occurred before her shift. Rather we should, as this article notes, see how she handles a major crisis, albeit one not of her making.

    And there should be a warning for leaders everywhere: best not to get in the habit of walking away from bad news. It can come back and bite you, and do great harm to others as well.

    Sometimes its best to address problems early on. One mark of a great leader is being able to discern which problems are the priority. Easier said than done.

  34. Sounds like Ms. Barra is doing an excellent job so far. However, if it turns out she had prior knowledge of the ignition safety problem and took no action, that is a fatal flaw.
    Recently a VW plant union organizing attempt failed in Tennessee. Notable was that management supported the attempt, and the reason for that support, if reported accurately, points to our ailing labor law system: in order for management to have a workers council with with to discuss issues of safety and efficiency, a union was required. Regardless of one's position on unions, what the heck is wrong with American labor law? Regardless of the presence of a union, management ought to be able to set up an interactive group with its employees.

  35. The Cobalt was sold in ads by Lutz as a well-outfitted revolution in American small cars, the high note for GM's new offerings. And, indeed, there was a fast top-end model.

    But the crudeness of base models was followed by a horror show of low reliability, little customer satisfaction, and no improvements. Like the ugly Aztek, Cobalt was a loser from day one, so no bucks were invested in salvaging it.
    It remained unrecommended every year by Consumer's Report.
    Lutz and perhaps Barra should have been ashamed.
    They also should have been alarmed or, at the very least, IF informed that this dog had a terrible tendency to eat owners. And if the "old" GM kept the fatalities and complaints secret from them, what changes has the "New GM" made to reduce that awful insulation? GM's cars are much better designed and built now, but is the beauty skin-deep?

  36. Not to let GM off the hook, but it was the drivers/owners who crashed their cars.

  37. The situation speaks of the "old" GM prior to filing for bankruptcy where bad news was not passed up to highest levels because the messenger usually got shot.

    The culture at Ford was similar before Mulally took over. Before he changed that culture, it was normal to report only good news at board meetings and suppress the bad because the executive would be excoriated if he did. When bad news is accepted as vital information and discussion centers on what actions need to be taken then the company is in much better shape. Hopefully the culture at GM is changing and Ms Barra can lead it forward.

  38. A classic example of GM's CYA culture. When an engineer suggested a simple repair of the switch, almost a decade ago, why wasn't it adopted? That's what the German and Japanese auto companies would have done, their ethos being to make the best that's possible rather than GM's ethos of don't rock the boat, it'll do, sit tight. The revised switches probably wouldn't have cost GM an extra dime. An additional problem, not discussed, was that back then, the supplier, now called Delphi, was part of GM. It's a lot easier and it takes less courage to criticize the product of an outside supplier than to do so of a product of one's own outfit.
    The issue of "excessive layers of bureaucracy" at GM is hardly new, I personally heard GM engineers bragging, almost half a century ago, that "Generous Motors" had at least two engineers employed for any task requiring one at most.
    The big question is whether Ms. Barra, a product of this environment, is able to rise above it. To do so, she's going to have t loose a lot of old friends and colleagues; a not very happy prospect.

  39. The yet same old same old applies here. If Mary is to get some results she needs to fire all involved for letting this get this far. You know that because of the cost the bean counters had calculated the immense cost to REPLACE this ignition switch not modify it to make it safe. Then the decision makers were faced (much like the Ford Pinto gas tank scenario) with how can we minimize our cost and litigate suits that will assuredly come our way. But like anything else they gambled that the problem was not that bad and could be handled via their risk management mentalities. Well guess what? There it is on your door step and now in full view of the public. All of this PR of getting it right and we are now a better company is totally hollow much like the ring of a brake drum. At GM its business as usual unless she starts firing people who continue with the same old way including herself.

  40. If shareholders don't demand that the members of the empowering GM Board of Directors also resign then they deserve the leadership and the company they have.

  41. It is not surprising that the government had to offer General Motors a bailout as there seem to be great similarities in operating structure and incompetence coupled with swift denial and the, “I didn’t know” mantra. One can feel sorry for Ms. Barra, but this is not about female leadership, it is about company integrity and that appears to be sadly lacking. Why would anyone buy GM products after this recall scandal?

  42. > Why I haven't bought a Detroit vehicle for 40 years. I hope her example, if carried out as promised, finally brings some measure of integrity to the disingenuously run American automakers.

  43. The actions reported in this article by GM are the best news a car owner can here; however, the pressure that seems to be attributed to Ms Barra instead of her predecessors is unwarranted. I surmise her Trumanesque attitude was not shared by those floating on their golden parachutes.

  44. It's interesting that GM executives claim that they were unaware of problems with the ignition switches in their vehicles. Both GM and NHTSA were notified of problems by hundreds, if not thousands, of GM car owners who had trouble with their ignition system over the years, but GM and NHTSA did absolutely nothing about it. Note that these cars are included in the current safety recall. See Consumer Affairs complaints:

  45. Anyone believing the fairy tales of blissful ignorance being offered by GM executives deserves to own a GM vehicle.

  46. Before GM Engineering was consolidated into a single organization Truck Engineering had a straight forward procedure to assess any potential safety related issue. Those vehicles deemed needing a recall notice were recalled. That process rarely took more than a year. After consolidation the Truck Safety Review process probably got mucked up or simply disappeared. But that's GM, left hand and right hand are usually disconnected. Barra will now create a committee to make sure that the Safety Recall process is fixed. The sad thing is, it wasn't broken until GM management broke it.

  47. Cars that come equipped with electronic pea brains developed to override the driver's intention are a menace. Anyone needing a computer's assistance to apply the brakes in time to avoid collision or even to parallel park should not hold a driver's license.

  48. "Ms. Barra is facing tough questions about her credibility and leadership."
    This is typical of America's Who-struck-John? mentality that assigns blame before investigation, often to someone not responsible for or even involved in making the mistake.
    Barra has been GM boss since January, but some are willing to blame her for a problem that prior GM CEO's and other executives knew about ten years ago!
    It is this mentality that restricts eyesight...and intelligent the end of one's nose. For example, President Obama came to office with a banking meltdown and recession already happening, with two wars raging that had drained America's treasury and blood for a decade, with tens of millions of Americans without health insurance while Republicans (primarily) complained that the same people were using emergency rooms for their healthcare, while a massive taxpayer bailout of Wall Street criminals was already in progress...all of this and more absolutely and solely attributable to the GW Bush Administration's mismanagement, lying and outright confiscation of taxpayers' dollars to reward the criminal actions of wealthy friends. Yet, those-who-can-see-no-further-than-the-end-of-their-noses were quick to blame the new president and demand that he immediately address and fix these problems.
    Small minds simply cannot reason soundly on large issues.

  49. Government Motors, still building garbage cars with huge safety issues and reliability problems. Zero quality. Sweep it under the rug as long as possible. Nothing has changed since Obama bailed them out.

  50. Tony, I have never owned a GM car, but be fair -- these cars were built BEFORE GM was bailed out, and the new Impala. Corvette, Chevy and GMC SUVs, etc. are competotive in structure and even design with their competition. Reliability ranges from "average" to "much below" in Consumer Reports polling, but Nissan and Chrysler and Jeep do worse.
    Your note implies saving GM would have pleased you? Well, w/o "economies of scale", every major component manufacturer in No. America, most tire and brake makers, and most truck/car delivery groups would have also gone under -- about 2,000,000 workers losing their jobs, and even more people losing their tushes in bankruptcies, lost pensions, etc. It was a necessary move. And the effects on the already shaky U.S. economy at that hour would have been horrific. Obama saved more than GM, much more, and, most of all, he bought time for adjustment. That new Impala? Consumer's gave it the highest rating any U.S. sedan has ever earned.

  51. The insulation of leadership from actual inner workings of the organizations for which they are responsible is systemic and directly proportional to organizational size.

  52. Bravo to Ms. Barra for facing this problem head on.
    It is a fair bet that a male CEO in the same position would have difficulty being so forthright.

  53. That's a prejudiced statement, butch.

  54. Wow, this is a complete failure of GM management's safety integrity. Where is the accountability? This wasn't the decision of engineers this was definitely a management decision.

    As reported in the Times earlier this month-

    In 2005, the automaker sent dealers a technical service bulletin. Its recommendation: Advise owners to remove “unessential items from their key chain.”

    You've got to be kidding, that was their solution.

  55. No kidding at all -- it's GM.

  56. It appears that Failure Mode and Effect Analysis and 8D problem solving techniques, used in many industries, live a spineless life at G.M. I can imagine a culture that pays lip service to a genuine Quality Culture. Too bad G.M. policy managers and leadership fail to get the job done.

  57. "Failure Mode and Effect Analysis and 8D problem solving techniques"
    Therein lies the problem. You can't replace common sense with some statistical program.

  58. Ripley's Believe it or Not - stretches credulity to think that no senior executive knew about this until yesterday?

  59. Auto industry executives ride around in company furnished cars (the vehicle "evaluation" program) with free insurance, intense maintenance and gasoline provided. When is the last time Ms. Barra was in a GM car that malfunctioned on the road? Does she even know how to change the oil? In her 30 years at GM, has she ever read a customer evaluation of a GM product? Does she regularly ride in production models of the competition (Honda, BMW)?

  60. From what I can tell from the description of the failure mode, this same defect has been experienced by at least one other OEM, and another key/cylinder set suppler. Delphi is a captive GM supplier. This was well before 2004 during the launch of a vehicle. The supplier and OEM engineering developed a fix prior to shipping any vehicle. Just like the (silent) GM fix in 2009, this fix involved some changes to key design requirements. This is all I should say due to loyalty to my employer and my exit agreement. The point is: because this was not a "new" failure mode, people at GM chose not to give it much attention. Inexcusable.

  61. NY Times reporter Bill Vlasic, in his front page article about G.M chief executive Ms. Mary T. Barra, refers to her as "a trained engineer."

    I would like to know what other kind of engineer is there? Does G.M. hire untrained engineers? Is Mr. Vlasic a trained journalist, or simply a journalist? If Ms. Barra had an M.D. degree, would she be referred to as a trained physician?

  62. @David:
    I have no problem with the phrase, "trained engineer" in this context because Ms. Barra is no longer working in that capacity. It's a shorthand way of saying that she trained as an engineer before moving into general management. In the case of physicians, it's common to say where they trained.

    By the way, you might like the NYT blog called After Deadline that reviews such matters, and where people who enjoy exploring grammar and usage congregate.