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DETROIT -- On April 14, in the heat of General Motors' recall crisis, CEO Mary Barra tweeted: "Our culture is simple: Our customers and their safety come first."

Her post was greeted with a mix of skepticism and hostility.

Talking GM culture wasn't supposed to be high on Barra's agenda in her first year as CEO. She and other GM execs had done that for years after bankruptcy, making a convincing case that this was a "New GM," smarter, nimbler, less bureaucratic.

Now, in the aftermath of a safety defect linked to 30 deaths and an investigation that laid bare the company's persistent decision-stifling dysfunction better than any book or MBA case study could, Barra is asked about it everywhere she goes.

But anyone waiting for the blueprint on how she'll tackle the culture issue will be disappointed. The idea of culture change is too abstract and distant for Barra, who is described by colleagues as an even-keeled pragmatist. (She once condensed GM's dress code to two words: "Dress appropriately.") Instead, she is pressing employees for small changes -- singular moments of candor and more-decisive action -- that over time will add up to the cultural transformation that has eluded so many GM CEOs before her.

It's the kind of effort that takes 10 years, Barra says. She wants to do it in five.

"The way I look at it, it's changing behaviors," Barra recently told Automotive News. She wants employees to be more forthright in meetings. She wants them to question their boss, or their boss' boss, or her, whenever someone is not delivering. She uses the phrase "own it" a lot.

"If I don't live up to what we all agree," she said, "they should call me out."

'That wall is gone'

As the smoke clears from GM's recalls of a record 30 million vehicles this year, the most concrete changes inside the company have come in the product-development and safety realm, many of them dictated by terms of a consent decree with federal regulators.

Global safety chief Jeff Boyer's team, put in place in response to the ignition-switch recall, has become "a beacon that the organization goes to with concerns. And they're seeing it get resolved," Barra said. Those infamous "silos" that prevented critical information about safety defects and crashes from flowing between GM's legal and engineering departments have been eliminated, Barra says.

"That wall is gone," she said. GM also has received "several hundred submissions" from insiders about possible safety problems under its new Speak Up for Safety program. One led to a safety recall.

GM President Dan Ammann says GM's product-development enterprise has rapidly adopted a "zero-defect mentality," synthesizing problem reports from consumers, dealers, federal regulators and social media. He says the new approach explains why many of GM's 77 recall campaigns this year have covered fewer than 100 vehicles.

Other themes of Barra's vision for changing the way GM operates are coming into focus. One is "building relationships," starting with the customers, who she conceded were "failed" by GM's handing of the ignition-switch defect. Mending ties to suppliers is a key focus, too. GM execs believe they're at a competitive disadvantage owing to a few decades of supplier mistrust, a symptom of those same behaviors Barra is trying to change.

And Barra is pairing the behavior-change mantra with an ultimatum of sorts. She has made it clear that executives who aren't willing to work on five areas ripe for change -- candor, accountability, trust, winning and tenacity -- don't need to stick around.

"The people will change, or the people will change," Barra said in the interview.

Barra has flashed that sort of hard-line message routinely in recent months, as she has pivoted from crisis mode and Capitol Hill grillings to far friendlier audiences in a string of recent keynote speeches and media briefings. She told The Detroit News last month: "If you believe there is a different strategy, there's probably some company you can go work for and execute what you think is right. ... The conversation's not even hard."

She saved some of her tough talk for rivals as well, with several comments that suggest she believes GM has long lacked a killer instinct. At an appearance in Detroit last month, she said: "We will be tough, unrelenting competitors" in the marketplace. "I want to win. Not get by. Not hold on. Not be competitive. But win."

No satisfaction

Mark Reuss, GM's global product chief and a member of Barra's inner circle of executives, said in a recent interview that he has heard similar talk in the past, "but how many people really bought into it?" He said the difference is that Barra and her team are "holding people accountable to that mentality."

Reuss views it in the context of GM's vehicle lineup. It's vastly improved from even five years ago. And he says nobody should be happy with that.

"Some of the commentary over the years has been stuff like, 'This is the best product lineup that General Motors has ever had,'" he said. "What does that mean? Should I feel good about that? No, I shouldn't."

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for executive programs at the Yale School of Management and a longtime GM observer, said he has seen "lots of crescendo moments, where the CEO announced some big breakthrough and the culture was changing and becoming more performance-based and customer-oriented or safety-conscious," and yet an insular, hidebound culture endured.

"Skepticism is warranted here," Sonnenfeld said. But he says Barra's handling of the recalls and the tone she's trying to set leave room for optimism.

GM North America President Alan Batey, who has been with GM for more than 30 years in management roles across eight countries, cites two reasons he thinks that Barra can prove the skeptics wrong.

This year's recall crisis is one. He says Barra so far has made good on her vow to employees the day Anton Valukas' searing investigative report came out, when she said: "I never want to put this behind us." He calls it a defining moment that employees have embraced.

Batey also says Barra's inclusive management style and her rock-star status even inside the company are leading to buy-in from insiders.

"At every level of the company, she just puts people at ease," Batey said. "What happens is, everyone starts to share. And guess what? When you get 10 people around a table actively engaged, you get a better decision than when two of them are telling everyone else what we're going to do."

Trying harder

Barra knows that skeptics will dismiss her as all talk. Since GM's 2009 bankruptcy, a common refrain from suppliers and dealers has been that the tone at the top of the company -- one of partnership and humility -- doesn't filter through the ranks.

Mike Martini, president of the original-equipment division of tire maker Bridgestone Americas and a member of GM's supplier council, says he sees more effort by GM than in the past to drive the supplier-relations message through the company's lower rungs. He said GM executives have urged suppliers to go to executive directors inside GM purchasing "when they see things not going in the right direction."

"Reaching from the top down through the work force of thousands of buyers is a monumental change because they've been operating in that culture for a long time," Martini said. "There's always going to be tension. I see them trying harder to strike the right balance."

At a recent meeting here of hundreds of GM's top suppliers, several executives pulled Reuss aside to deliver the same message: GM's executives and its rank-and-file buyers often aren't aligned.

That prompted Reuss to convene an internal meeting of 20 GM managers in charge of purchasing systems and components from suppliers. His goal: to pinpoint the breakdowns between the view from the executive suite -- that solid supplier relations are paramount to GM -- and the daily interactions between buyer and supplier.

For example, Reuss said that the purchasers will commonly "cut side deals" with engineers on solutions for a part or subsystem without looping in the supplier. Purchasing should routinely confer with engineering, Reuss says, but not in a way that marginalizes the relationship with the supplier.

"You lose that communication with the supplier, and then you lose the ability to do what you said you were going to do," Reuss said. "You lose that trust."

Barra says she understands the importance of driving her message through what 1980s-era CEO Roger Smith termed "the frozen middle." That was a key reason she called the top 300 executives from across the globe to a meeting here in September, with a large part of the agenda set aside for hashing over "what behaviors are getting in our way."

"They're the ones," she said, "who know what's going on at a deep level in the company."

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I hope that middle management get much better at feeding the negative problems up the management chain, as these are guys normally very pro GM, and very positive minded sort of people that don't want to appear at negative at upper management meetings, that live in a sunshine world where the shines every day, with no headwinds, and in a world where it never ever rains.

It was only a few weeks ago a director of Engineering came out to visit various sections in the company l work for, the Engineers were give a pre-meeting brief by the local general manager not to mention any of the days to day problems you are experiencing in the area as the Director of Engineering would not be interested in them. Sure enough a few Engineers put their head above the parapet, started to mention a few of the biggest problems in the area. The Director of Engineering was totally shocked has he had never been aware of problems never knew they ever existed. He then changed fixed some genuine big problems in the area, that positive sounding managers failed to bring up at meetings at a higher level, as the staff i the area had been papering over the cracks everyday in a that required a constant daily struggle.

It was basically sections set up within the company as individual business centres that only care about themselves, in one business centre a few people were holding up 100's that remained idle of for half a shift in another business centre, who were working at 200% flat out papering over the cracks in the second part of their shift. All because the Senior Manger could not speak-up be bothered to sought out the more dominant mior few out by feeding problems up the management chain. GM had a similar problem in its design department they were understaffed with very unrealistic workloads to many car products imposed upon them to design, so products were rushed to the market second rate ignition switches.

Maybe Mary Barra should get out test the water, and pre-empt meetings with staff within different areas, after giving the spill on future changes that are coming, whatever the subject, by asking staff "Well its you turn now, whats you biggest problems you are experiencing in your department" .

You might be a few big surprises that were not getting fed back by Senior Managers who are normally very positive people who live in a sunshine world 365 days a year where it never rains and everything is hunky dory as the good ship, just like when GM sailing onto the rocks in Chapter 11 when it had become to late to turn the big oil tanker around with 7 yearly refreshes of "crappy cars", when it does rain in the real world.

Poor ole Mary Barra has spent the first year of leadership sorting out the "crappy car" recall problems in court, that only give her 4 year to turn around the safety culture from within if it is gonna be "It's the kind of effort that takes 10 years, Barra says. She wants to do it in five".
 
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DETROIT -- On April 14, in the heat of General Motors' recall crisis, CEO Mary Barra tweeted: "Our culture is simple: Our customers and their safety come first."

Her post was greeted with a mix of skepticism and hostility.

Talking GM culture wasn't supposed to be high on Barra's agenda in her first year as CEO. She and other GM execs had done that for years after bankruptcy, making a convincing case that this was a "New GM," smarter, nimbler, less bureaucratic.

Now, in the aftermath of a safety defect linked to 30 deaths and an investigation that laid bare the company's persistent decision-stifling dysfunction better than any book or MBA case study could, Barra is asked about it everywhere she goes.

But anyone waiting for the blueprint on how she'll tackle the culture issue will be disappointed. The idea of culture change is too abstract and distant for Barra, who is described by colleagues as an even-keeled pragmatist. (She once condensed GM's dress code to two words: "Dress appropriately.") Instead, she is pressing employees for small changes -- singular moments of candor and more-decisive action -- that over time will add up to the cultural transformation that has eluded so many GM CEOs before her.

It's the kind of effort that takes 10 years, Barra says. She wants to do it in five.

"The way I look at it, it's changing behaviors," Barra recently told Automotive News. She wants employees to be more forthright in meetings. She wants them to question their boss, or their boss' boss, or her, whenever someone is not delivering. She uses the phrase "own it" a lot.

"If I don't live up to what we all agree," she said, "they should call me out."

'That wall is gone'
And Barra is pairing the behavior-change mantra with an ultimatum of sorts. She has made it clear that executives who aren't willing to work on five areas ripe for change -- candor, accountability, trust, winning and tenacity -- don't need to stick around.

"The people will change, or the people will change," Barra said in the interview.

She saved some of her tough talk for rivals as well, with several comments that suggest she believes GM has long lacked a killer instinct. At an appearance in Detroit last month, she said: "We will be tough, unrelenting competitors" in the marketplace. "I want to win. Not get by. Not hold on. Not be competitive. But win."

No satisfaction
GM North America President Alan Batey, who has been with GM for more than 30 years in management roles across eight countries, cites two reasons he thinks that Barra can prove the skeptics wrong.

This year's recall crisis is one. He says Barra so far has made good on her vow to employees the day Anton Valukas' searing investigative report came out, when she said: "I never want to put this behind us." He calls it a defining moment that employees have embraced.

Batey also says Barra's inclusive management style and her rock-star status even inside the company are leading to buy-in from insiders.

"At every level of the company, she just puts people at ease," Batey said. "What happens is, everyone starts to share. And guess what? When you get 10 people around a table actively engaged, you get a better decision than when two of them are telling everyone else what we're going to do."

Trying harder
Barra says she understands the importance of driving her message through what 1980s-era CEO Roger Smith termed "the frozen middle." That was a key reason she called the top 300 executives from across the globe to a meeting here in September, with a large part of the agenda set aside for hashing over "what behaviors are getting in our way."

"They're the ones," she said, "who know what's going on at a deep level in the company."
Mary is on the right track here and has identified most of the "root causes" for GM's past failures.

I hope that middle management get much better at feeding the negative problems up the management chain, as these are guys normally very pro GM, and very positive minded sort of people that don't want to appear at negative at upper management meetings, that live in a sunshine world where the shines every day, with no headwinds, and in a world where it never ever rains.

It was only a few weeks ago a director of Engineering came out to visit various sections in the company l work for, the Engineers were give a pre-meeting brief by the local general manager not to mention any of the days to day problems you are experiencing in the area as the Director of Engineering would not be interested in them. Sure enough a few Engineers put their head above the parapet, started to mention a few of the biggest problems in the area. The Director of Engineering was totally shocked has he had never been aware of problems never knew they ever existed. He then changed fixed some genuine big problems in the area, that positive sounding managers failed to bring up at meetings at a higher level, as the staff i the area had been papering over the cracks everyday in a that required a constant daily struggle.

It was basically sections set up within the company as individual business centres that only care about themselves, in one business centre a few people were holding up 100's that remained idle of for half a shift in another business centre, who were working at 200% flat out papering over the cracks in the second part of their shift. All because the Senior Manger could not speak-up be bothered to sought out the more dominant mior few out by feeding problems up the management chain. GM had a similar problem in its design department they were understaffed with very unrealistic workloads to many car products imposed upon them to design, so products were rushed to the market second rate ignition switches.

Maybe Mary Barra should get out test the water, and pre-empt meetings with staff within different areas, after giving the spill on future changes that are coming, whatever the subject, by asking staff "Well its you turn now, whats you biggest problems you are experiencing in your department" .

You might be a few big surprises that were not getting fed back by Senior Managers who are normally very positive people who live in a sunshine world 365 days a year where it never rains and everything is hunky dory as the good ship, just like when GM sailing onto the rocks in Chapter 11 when it had become to late to turn the big oil tanker around with 7 yearly refreshes of "crappy cars", when it does rain in the real world.

Poor ole Mary Barra has spent the first year of leadership sorting out the "crappy car" recall problems in court, that only give her 4 year to turn around the safety culture from within if it is gonna be "It's the kind of effort that takes 10 years, Barra says. She wants to do it in five".
Good points and the only way GM can change.

These "changes" of focus and candor are at the heart of becoming a world class organization and will take time to implement since employees need to know they are "safe" if they point out shortcomings in a professional way.

GM's management must understand that no company is without shortcomings and the longer a company has been repeating the same strategies the more problems there will be since variation from a strategy and the need to change strategies are ever present.

As long as everyone says "things are going OK", GM will remain stuck in the past, only when employees are allowed to point out the warts can a company become competitive enough "To Win".
 
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