The crisis that erupted over faulty ignition switches in 2014 changed General Motors‘ (GM) culture more than its bankruptcy five years earlier did, said Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president, global product development, purchasing and supply chain, at the 2017 Automotive News World Congress.
During an onstage discussion with Automotive News Publisher Jason Stein, Reuss said when the ignition switch defect – a decade-old problem linked to more than 100 fatalities – surfaced just weeks into Mary Barra’s tenure as CEO, it sent a powerful message across the automaker’s workforce.
“We used that to really change the way the company behaved, and also to change what was OK and wasn’t OK, and what we wanted to be,” said Reuss. “It was an unbelievably painful process.”
To determine the extent of the problem and fix it transparently, Reuss said he had to enter unfamiliar territory to take on the role of a detective. Among the improvements that the crisis produced was GM’s “Speak Up for Safety” program, which encourages workers to report potential problems they discover, and to do it anonymously if they prefer. Fewer than 5 percent of the reports submitted through the program have been anonymous, said Reuss.
“For me that’s a big proof point that people really want the right thing,” he said.
Reuss acknowledged widespread skepticism that he and Barra, as second-generation GM lifers, could lead the company in a new direction, saying those doubts serve as “incredible motivation to prove people wrong.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, Reuss also said:
- Shortly before the 2009 bankruptcy filing, as the industry and the company seemed to be collapsing around them, Reuss said he and Barra agreed to warn each other if they were thinking of bailing. “I can remember standing with her in a parking lot in some of the darkest days. She said, ‘If you are ever leaving this, you must tell me before you do.’ We had a pact,” Reuss said. “I had come back from Australia, and she was running product development. I said, ‘I am not, because I know what this company can be.’ And she said, ‘Mark, I know the people in this company can win, and we have to enable the people in this company to win.'”
- He and other executives learned an important lesson a few years later, after launching the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Sales fell far short of expectations as the company had a hard time explaining to consumers how it worked and convincing them the technology was safe. “You can innovate your brains out and get a great product,” he said. “But it is hard to sell cars. It is a hard business. You’ve got to convince people why they’re going to come and buy something. And you’ve got to make sure you have a bulletproof case to do it.”
- GM is trying to figure out how President-elect Donald Trump’s administration may affect its business. During a nationally televised news conference Wednesday, Trump praised Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for recent U.S. job announcements and called on GM to follow suit. “I think they will be,” Trump said.
- GM has worked hard “to put a lot of people back to work with a lot of products that are made in this country.” He said Barra, whom President-elect Donald Trump has named to an economic advisory panel, “would help GM tell that story.”