It’s been a rough year for General Motors. The company has recalled more than 28 million vehicles worldwide and is liable for billions of dollars in automotive repairs and victim compensation. It suffered an 85% drop in its second-quarter earnings and faces multiple state investigations, not to mention class-action lawsuits related to safety issues. Can GM recover from this massive crisis?
It can make a comeback, but the recovery hinges on changing the organization’s culture. For years, GM focused on cost-effectiveness and the bottom line, creating what the new CEO Mary Barra calls “a pattern of incompetence and neglect.” To address the current crisis, she of course needs to fix the safety problems, but she also needs to create a new company culture. Safety must become the priority over cost savings in order to regain consumer and market trust, and GM’s focus needs to be on the customer.
So far, Barra, who inherited the crisis when she was promoted to CEO this past January, is moving in the right direction. By firing 15 employees who were involved in the lack of communication about safety issues, she sent a powerful message both within and outside of the company about the company’s changing priorities.
Huge crowds recently descended on New York City to demand action on climate change. While it was an important event, I’m not sure what the march accomplished, beyond calling more attention to this critical issue. But there is a way to harness this kind of people power in a way that can have a real impact: Organize a string of high-profile marches and other activities right in the congressional districts of politicians who continue to deny undeniable science.
True political change doesn’t necessarily happen by marching in front of world leaders and others who already largely agree with you. But there can be a real impact if some of these same marchers would be willing to demonstrate in less friendly political territory to directly take on some powerful people who stand in the way of meaningful efforts to combat climate change.
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko’s memorable pronouncement that “greed is good” epitomized the worst features of American corporations that focus only on maximizing immediate shareholder returns without regard to the impact on their employees, customers, or communities.
That corporate caricature has continued to prevail. But recently, people ranging from Harvard University Business School Professor Michael Porter to leaders of the Sloan, Ford, Aspen, Hitachi (more here) and other foundations are putting forward the case that companies can provide great returns to shareholders and great jobs for employees.
Nearly one fifth of American workers work in retail and fast food, and they have bad jobs. They earn poverty-level wages, have unpredictable schedules that make it hard to hold on to a second job, and have few opportunities for success and growth. These are not just people who are uneducated or unskilled. In 2010 more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree.
The conventional wisdom in business is that bad jobs like this are necessary to keep prices low and profits high. If a low-cost retail chain were to pay its cashiers more, then it would either make less money or have to raise its prices. Implicit in this logic is the seemingly self-evident tradeoff between low prices and good jobs. But that is a false tradeoff. Even in highly competitive industries like low-cost retail, it is possible to pay employees decent wages and treat them well while giving customers the low prices they demand.
I studied four retail chains that manage to do this: Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip (a U.S. chain of convenience stores with gas stations), and Mercadona (Spain’s largest supermarket chain). They offer their employees much better jobs than their competitors, all the while keeping their prices low and performing well in all the ways that matter to any business. They have high productivity, great customer service, healthy growth, and excellent returns to their investors. They compete head-on with companies that spend far less on their employees, and they win.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared before a Senate panel once again Thursday to discuss the company’s flawed ignition switches and vowed that GM will “do all it can to make certain that this does not happen again.”
In terms of damage control, much of what Barra and GM appear to be doing right now is positive: fessing up about product failures, bringing in outside investigators and firing employees that failed to take appropriate measures.
And while these are important steps, they amount only to a good, if somewhat belated, crisis management strategy. In fact, these efforts pale against the very real organizational challenges that lay ahead for GM and Barra. In order make good on her promise to Congress, Barra must prevent the kinds of engineering failures that caused the ignition problems in the first place and the organizational failures that propelled the problem to its current tragic magnitude. And that will mean changing the culture at GM.
Engineers like to be right. They like to prove that they have the correct answer.
Highly trained and highly motivated to solve problems, at the point of releasing a design or demonstrating a model or a prototype, everything in them is wired to prove that they’ve arrived at the right answer. The premium is so high on being “right” that even when data starts proving them wrong, they work to show that they are right somehow. They seek to explain what is happening is an exceptional outlier or an aberration; not that it is a sign of a problem. Read More »