Friday, June 6, 2014

General Motors CEO asks workers to "Call Me". Is this unprecedented in the Corporate Boardroom?

Mary Barra, the recently appointed CEO of General Motors, has been criticized for her response to the ignition switch malfunction" that resulted in deaths of drivers of GM vehicles.  It is something that occurred before she became the CEO so I willing to cut her some slack.

According to an internal investigation this problem was an accident waiting to happen (forgive the pun) and completely avoidable. Bureaucratic inertia and territory protection (i.e. CYA) seem to have been at the forefront.

In her message to employees (FOUND HERE) about the results of an internal report she said the following:
"So if you are aware of a potential problem affecting safety or quality and you don't speak up, you are a part of the problem. And that is not acceptable. If you see a problem that you don't believe is being handled properly, bring it to the attention of your supervisor. If you still don't believe it's being handled properly, contact me directly."
 Odd a CEO telling rank and file employees to contact them directly with an issue.  Unprecedented, right?

No.  In a terrific book I read a year or two ago "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Durhigg tells the story of former US Treasury Security Paul O'neil who became an unlikely CEO of the steel conglomerate ALCOA.

For instance, consider one event about six months into O'Neill's tenure, when he got a telephone call in the middle of the night. A plant manager in Arizona was on the line, panicked, talking about how a piece of machinery had stopped operating and one of the workers -- a young man who had joined the company a few weeks earlier, eager for the job because it offered health care for his pregnant wife -- had tried a repair. He had jumped over a yellow safety wall surrounding the press and walked across the pit. There was a piece of aluminum jammed into the hinge on a swinging six-foot arm. The young man pulled on the aluminum scrap, removing it. The machine was fixed. Behind him, the arm restarted its arc, swinging toward his head. When it hit, the arm crushed his skull. He was killed instantly. 
Fourteen hours later, O'Neill ordered all the plant's executives into an emergency meeting. For much of the day, they painstakingly re-created the accident with diagrams and by watching videotapes again and again. They identified dozens of errors that had contributed to the death, including two managers who had seen the man jump over the barrier but failed to stop him, a training program that hadn't emphasized to the man that he wouldn't be blamed for a breakdown, lack of instructions that he should find a manager before attempting a repair, and the absence of sensors to automatically shut down the machine when someone stepped into the pit. 
"We killed this man," a grim-faced O'Neill told the group. "It's my failure of leadership. I caused his death. And it's the failure of all of you in the chain of command." 
The executives in the room were taken aback. Sure, a tragic accident had occurred, but tragic accidents were part of life at Alcoa. 
Within a week of that meeting, however, all the safety railings at Alcoa's plants were repainted bright yellow, and new policies were written up. Employees were told not to be afraid to suggest proactive maintenance. And O'Neill sent a note to every worker telling them call him at home if managers didn't follow up on their safety suggestions.
Wish we had more CEO "brass" like this today.  Maybe we would not be in such a mess.
Read more about this particular incident and how workers calling him personally made a huge difference in the company turnaround---HERE from the author.
The whole book is worth a read too.  It covers a broad range of topics and is NOT a business book. More psychology I would say.  

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