Facing a long-string of unanswered questions, key executives of the General Motors Corp. sat before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection as controversy continued to swirl around the beleaguered automaker.
Mary Barra, named CEO of the number one US automaker last April, has been a regular commuter to Washington as she has appeared before a number of House and Senate subcommittees, to explain just how more than 20 million of its vehicles all have faulty ignition locks.
At the core of General Motors problems is its culture that is bred by is standard operating procedure. Its SOP has low-level managers and engineering staff keep problems at their level, never kicking them up the chain of command. In this way, corporate thinks things are always rosy.
If not, then, something must be wrong. If something is wrong heads have to roll – the heads of those low-level executives and their bosses plus the engineers and their bosses running the program. That's why in 2002, when an engineer noted there was a problem with the ignitions that were coming from the then-GM subsidiary Delphi, nothing was said about it beyond the project team.
This procedure was documented by Anton Valukas, a former federal attorney, who was hired by Barra and her own counsel, Mike Millikan, to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the issues raised by the rapidly growing consumer and corporate discontent as the ignition issue began to snowball rapidly.
Early reports encouraging, but then again...
The early reports of the saga of GM's ignition system made it appear as if one or two million cars from the middle part of the decade were affected by the problem. They specifically includes four- and six-cylinder front-drive compacts and subcompacts. However, as the Valukas study advanced it became apparent that the problem was deeper than anyone in corporate could comprehend.
(This is one of the more interesting aspects of this whole issue: Mary Barra was head of corporate design and was, actually, their boss, so she should have known something was up. However, Barra has never said when she knew of the ignition issue. It also makes you wonder about the GM management team now in place.)
The key issue for the Senate subcommittee is an interesting one: Barra has maintained that she has changed the culture of hiding things behind smokescreens and mirrors so that it appears nothing is happening, but, given the depth of Valukas' study (called by one senator, “the best report money can buy,” it still is clear that the corporate culture has not changed an iota. It takes more than a few months to ingrain a new business model into your staff people, so one has to wonder just how steeped in the GM culture of smoke and mirrors Barra is).
15 fired for incompetence
One of the achievements that GM points to with pride is the 15 high-level people who were fired for incompetence over the whole issue. Again, this leads one to wonder, say the various automotive observers, just when Barra and company knew about the problem and just when they did something about it. And, only 15 people were let go, something is definitely out of whack here!
Further, reports the Associated Press state, if a low-level engineer spotted the problem and reported it in 2002 and it has continued for more than 11 years, then how can anyone who is now leading the company – and who was also head of design quality review – could not have known of a problem that is likely to cost GM up to $10 billion to fix and which now involves more than 20 million vehicles, across all GM lines – those offered at the time and which have been retired and those still sold.
There is a line from a movie, “The King and I,” shot in 1957, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, in which the bewildered King of Siam looks at Anna and says aloud: “It is a puzzlement!” This whole issue is a puzzlement, if you look at it closely.
A lawyerly view
Barra won't be alone at the witness table as Mike Millikan, head counsel of GM, is also scheduled to appear. Several senators, who serve on the committee, have indicated that they want to question him closely about how the country's top automaker – at the time – could let junior level staff attorneys make decisions on allowing GM to settle issues with the victim's families.
There have been 13 deaths reported so far, while there has been no real estimate of the injured, involved or the number of accidents involved where there was just injury and no fatalities.
Millikan's lawyerly view will be especially important to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who, while calling the Valukas report “the best report money can buy,” also wondered just why it failed to look beyond the low-level managers and engineers.
Since it is rapidly affecting the bottom line of the automaker, it would make sense, wouldn't it, for the executive committee to have an idea that something was amiss on the manufacturing plant floor?
Granted, the executive committee couldn't know of every nut and bolt that goes into each GM model, but, by the same token, they should have seen this tidal wave coming and prepared for it. Further, to say that only 15 people were involved in this rather large coverup (what else would you call a 20-million-car-plus recall) seems a bit absurd.
Who is running the show?
Equally as absurd to some on the committee is the ability of a low-level engineer, who, when he found the initial Delphi problem, didn't report it, however, he did order a running change in the ignition switch lines when they fixed the problem? Is it a case of the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail.
One who may also help clear this up is Richard O'Neil, CEO and president of Delphi, maker of both the defective and working replacement part. One has to wonder how the new part could have the same number as the initial part (most companies will put a Rev. number on it for Revision number). No such Rev number appears on this.
Suffice it to say that this will be an interesting day in Washington’s corridors. Plus, one other fact that just came to the surface today and is detailed in a report in ezines http://www.ezines.com which, in a nutshell, promises the fix will be done, but the company just doesn't know when.