Maybe this guy can become head of product safety?  Source: Paramount Pictures via Bloomberg
Maybe this guy can become head of product safety? Source: Paramount Pictures via Bloomberg

When the first film in the Transformers franchise debuted in 2007, General Motors couldn't do enough to emphasize the symbolism of its vehicles morphing into battle-ready robots. "The movie title itself is a very strong communication device for the transformation of our company for delivering outstanding products in the marketplace," Bob Kraut, then GM's director of brand marketing and advertising told the trade paper Automotive News. "Transformation is great to live under if you want to communicate that. Thank God there's a movie called 'Transformers' that we can play in."

Nearly seven years later, another Transformers film is debuting, and GM is still clinging to the hope that Michael Bay's latest extravaganza will transform its vehicles into heroes in the eyes of consumers. “Being a part of the ‘Transformers’ franchise is an incredible way to showcase the design work of which GM is capable,” GM's vice president of global design, Ed Welburn, told Variety recently. “The global series gets our cutting-edge designs in front of more potential customers than we could through traditional methods.”

But as the company struggles to convince the public that it has a handle on safety problems that date back to that first Transformers movie, it's increasingly obvious that GM's transformation has not progressed past the point of Hollywood fantasy.

The latest missed opportunity for meaningful change came last week, when Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra and her hand-picked investigator, Anton Valukas, testified before the House Energy and Commerce committee. Having frustrated investigators at her previous congressional hearings by promising answers would come in the Valukas Report, Barra's return to Capitol Hill was a chance to calm the the angry congressional waters. Instead, Valukas's testimony revealed that his investigation was far from comprehensive, forcing increasingly irate congressional investigators to redouble their efforts. Instead of answering the tough questions raised by GM's safety crisis, the Valukas Report made it increasingly clear that there is more to GM's recall issues than meets the eye.

And yet the news media continues to spectacularly misunderstand the recall mess. In an interview with Barra this week, "Today" show host Matt Lauer whiffed spectacularly while trying to tease out uncovered factors in the recall mess, asking Barra about the impact of her status as a woman and mother on her work at GM. Lauer as been lambasted for his patronizing question, but his sexism is nowhere near as galling as his cluelessness. If Barra can't transform GM's inept culture it will be because she has never worked outside the firm, not because she gave birth.

GM's inability to look outside of itself for talent, still relying on company lifers even in the face of undeniable evidence of deep cultural rot, demonstrates how far the firm is from a genuine transformation. In the latest corporate reshuffle, Barra named GM's North American manufacturing chief to a new position in charge of "product excellence," and replaced him with yet another company lifer. Bloomberg also reported this week that top product development executive Doug Parks remains at the firm, despite his deep involvement in the decision not to recall the Cobalt ignition switch. Even GM's product-development boss, Mark Reuss, seems unable to demonstrate the level of urgency around safety issues that he shows towards anything Corvette-related. But I guess this is what you'd expect from a corporate culture in which sponsoring a movie about car-robots from outer space counts as a meaningful step toward actual transformation.

Meanwhile, the recalls and stop-sale notices are still stacking up. The Chevrolet Cruze was the main victim this week; tens of thousands were recalled for exploding airbags made by the Japanese supplier Takata. GM acted several days after seven other automakers recalled Takata airbags in the U.S. market, and was prompted by a lawsuit by a woman who alleges she was partially blinded by one of the detonating safety devices. Even in the midst of intense public scrutiny of its safety practices, GM is still slower to recall than competitors, and seemingly does so only under threat of lawsuit.

With every new report of GM's safety fecklessness, it becomes increasingly obvious that the only chance at real change lies outside the company. Barra's promised "turnaround" has no more credibility than the "revolutions" launched by her three immediate predecessors. Until new leadership is brought in, anyone looking for transformations at GM will have to rely on the silver screen.

To contact the writer of this article: Edward Niedermeyer at edward.niedermeyer@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.