"Processes." That's a word that you don't hear much outside of engineering meetings and the halls of government. Yet it's a word that General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra keeps coming back to in a series of short videos posted to the web this morning, in an attempt to answer concerns about GM's deadly ignition switch defects.
In four videos posted to GM's internal blog, Barra says she's speaking to GM customers who have concerns about the recall of 1.6 million vehicles — problems the automaker refused to recall for more than a decade, and which have since been linked to at least 13 deaths. And Barra does tackle the question about what took GM so long:
In another video, answering how GM will ensure this doesn't happen again, Barra says "We plan to change whatever processes we need to to make sure we have a world-class process in vehicle safety."
Those of us who study how people ask and answer questions for a living would say Barra didn't so much answer the query of "Why did the recall take so long?," but rather "What is GM doing about it?" The "why" question remains a mystery, despite several new reports exposing how different tentacles of GM's bureaucracy confronted or covered up the defect. While the legal side played hardball with victims (per The New York Times), an engineering team and parts supplier Delphi (per Automotive News) quietly altered the component in question in 2006 without noting the change with a new part number — violating a cardinal rule of automotive engineering and further delaying a recall by years.
All signs so far — and they're signs only found by lawyers taking depositions, not provided by GM itself — point to GM's pre-bankruptcy practice of squeezing pennies hard enough to give Lincoln migraines as the ultimate cause of these deaths. Were GM to say so directly, whatever points it earned for honesty would be washed away under a new tide of lawsuits; since the company wiped out its liability for crashes that happened before 2009 in its bankruptcy, such an admission could lead a judge to reinstate them on the grounds that GM wasn't truthful in its original Chapter 11 filings.
Barra, who's only been CEO for two months, has already apologized in closed meetings for the deaths from the defect. After the travails of Toyota over its floormat and stuck pedal recalls, and Ford with the Firestone/Explorer tire debacle, the next steps for Barra and GM seem clear: Barra will have to repeat that apology in public during congressional hearings next month, while facing some less friendly questions from lawmakers. GM's legal teams will need to work out settlements with victims, their relatives and the U.S. government that will cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. And GM will have to prove, in ways large and small, with deeds and not words alone, that it's the different company Barra says it wants to be. That's the process.