Listen to Mary Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, and she says many of the right things. She talks about using this moment as a break from the automaker’s troubled past and an opportunity to redefine its operation and its image. Thursday, discussing the completion of an internal investigation into the company’s long failure to recall vehicles with dangerously faulty ignition switches, she pointed to the value in the findings making a deep impression.
“We aren’t simply going to fix this and move on,” she told GM employees. “I want to keep this painful experience permanently in our collective memories. I don’t want to forget what happened because I – and I know you – never want this to happen again.”
Barra described the report as unsparing and tough, its author, Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney, whose law firm, notably, has GM as a client. She pointed to the report finding “a pattern of incompetence and neglect,” with “individuals seemingly looking for reasons not to act,” even as the ignition problem in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other models put the lives of customers at risk.
This absence of urgency, due, in part, to bureaucratic silos, persisted for a decade, until the automaker finally announced a recall in January, with 13 deaths now linked to 47 crashes.
In addition to portraying a harsh assessment, Barra pointed to punishment, 15 employees dismissed, more than half senior executives. The company has established a compensation program, set to begin soon, led by Kenneth Feinberg, who ably performed similar duties after Sept. 11 attacks and the Boston marathon bombings.
General Motors has been trying to meet its challenge. Yet something was missing last week.
Barra stressed that the Valukas report “revealed no conspiracy by the corporation to cover up the facts” and “no evidence that any employee made a trade-off between safety and cost.” Did she draw a distinction with little difference? Conspiracy or not, trade-off or not, the results were the same. She strained to explain how engineers failed to grasp that when the faulty switch cut off the engine, airbags also stopped working.
It puzzles, too, that Barra, then the head of product development, and other top executives were in the dark about the problem until this year. And how did the error of an engineer in 2006, failing to give a redesigned ignition switch a new part number, escape attention for so long?
All of this, and other unexplained elements, signal that General Motors hasn’t yet confronted “this painful experience” in full. Thus it is leaving the task to others, federal regulators, members of Congress and prosecutors, to help in meeting the procaimed goal. Should additional revelations surface? The company won’t project the image of having been eager to put its past behind and gain a new image.