10 Questions GM Still Needs to Answer
General Motors Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra and Anton Valukas, who conducted the company's in-house investigation into its recall woes, will answer questions before a House panel today. Here is what I would ask them:
1) Mr. Valukas, your report dismisses several serious concerns as "not being the focus of this investigation" and observes that "determining the identity of any actual decision-maker was impenetrable. No single person owned any decision. Indeed, it was often difficult to determine who sat on the committees or what they considered, as there are rarely minutes of meetings." So did your investigation uncover evidence that there was no conspiracy, as your and Ms Barra's public statements indicate, or was there simply an absence of evidence of a conspiracy?
2) The Valukas report dealt only with the Cobalt ignition issue, dismissing other concerns as "not being the focus of this investigation." But GM as has recalled a huge number of vehicles since the specific defect investigated became public. Ms. Barra, does GM see the Valukas report as comprehensive of all of GM's recent safety issues, or will you conduct further investigations into all the recent recalls in hopes of turning up more insight into its safety-culture problems?
3) According to your report, Mr. Valukas, GM's general counsel, Michael Milliken, didn't find out about the ignition issue until a week before the recall itself. But you also note that one of his subordinate lawyers had approved a legal settlement in a wrongful-death case of $5 million, precisely the maximum amount that could be approved without Milliken's approval, just as a high-ranking engineering executive, Jim Federico, was set to be deposed. Was it GM policy or culture to insulate top leadership such as Mr. Milliken and Mr. Federico?
4) A GM lawyer apparently pushed back against a report about the ignition-shutoff problem by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "We can't stand hearing, after the article is published, that we didn't do enough to defend a brand new launch." At roughly the same time, the Cobalt's vehicle line executive, Lori Queen, lashed out at Consumer Reports for giving the model weak quality marks. Why did GM not listen to the media, which correctly identified defects nearly a decade before GM did?
5) The Valukas report notes that lawyers rather than engineers had the final say on safety issues. Is this why it was possible for leadership at the world's largest automaker to demonstrate, in Mr. Valukas's words, a "failure to understand, quite simply, how the car was built?" Or are there other, as-yet-undisclosed issues that prevent GM from being able to perform the most basic tasks of an automaker?
6) Why did GM replace Cadillac SRX ignition switches for shut-off issues but not replace similarly defective switches in Cobalt or other compact cars? Is it true, Ms. Barra, that damages are often tied to family income level and that a defect in a Cadillac is likely to cause GM more trouble than a materially identical defect in a Cobalt? If so, did this calculus affect GM's decision to not recall the Cobalt until long after it was released rather than before release, as the SRX was?
7) Ms. Barra, why was the term "no business case" used by GM employees in dismissing the Cobalt ignition issue in internal e-mails, and how does that square with the report's analysis (and your repeated public statements) that GM employees balance safety against cost?
8) Ms. Barra, given the clear need for culture change, why have you not been more open about who was fired as a result of this investigation and why -- in effect protecting disgraced executives at the expense of creating better communications?
9) Ms. Barra is cited in the Valukas Report as the source of the term "the GM Nod," in which everyone in a meeting would agree to a course of action but then do nothing. At what point in your more than 30 years at GM, Ms. Barra, did you become aware of the GM Nod? And why did people have to die before you tried to do something about GM's cultural dysfunction?
10) Ms. Barra's predecessor, Dan Akerson, touted his own "culture change," saying, "Whoever comes after me -- it's going to be a more important appointment than mine because he or she will have to carry on a cultural revolution here." Ms. Barra, how are your promises of culture change different from Mr. Akerson's apparently empty ones? If GM's taxpayer bailout wasn't the mother of all wake-up calls, how can we assume this will be?
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