I posted a new article on LinkedIn:
GM seems to continue their “blame the employees” game, as they've suspended two engineers (in my mind, blaming individuals for systemic cultural problems). CEO Mary Barra says that some executives may be punished, but starting from “the bottom up” with the punishments doesn't sound like a new GM.
I'm skeptical that a “speak up” program will do anything. The problem wasn't a lack of employees speaking up, but rather a lack of leaders actually listening. A funny commenter, Rod Barnett, suggested that the new GM program should be called “Listen Up for Safety” and should be directed at executives, not engineers.
I recently shared a “speak up” story about quality and, in the new LinkedIn piece, I share a new personal story about speaking up about employee safety. It includes me having hands placed around my neck in a threatening way. Good times.
The Full Article:
As I wrote about recently here on LinkedIn, GM's relatively new CEO Mary Barra thought she had to remind employees that the customer should come first. Based on my two years working for GM, from 1995 to 1997, the front-line employees and engineers never forgot that the customer comes first — management did (at all levels). I later wrote a lengthy blog post about a time I had to speak up (and potentially risk my job) about a quality problem I saw.
This week, Barra announced a well-intended program called “Speak Up For Safety.”
As the blog GM Authority wrote:
CEO Mary Barra instituted the program today while speaking at an employee town meeting. “GM must embrace a culture where safety and quality come first. GM employees should raise safety concerns quickly and forcefully, and be recognized for doing so.”
Yes, GM must embrace that new culture. That culture change must come from the top, from Barra on down. That culture change won't happen overnight in an organization as big as GM. Leaders need to “walk the talk” and demonstrate in many very public ways that they are serious, otherwise cynical GM employees will roll their eyes.
The ignition switch problem that led to all of this was reported by an engineer in 2001 and a service technician in 2003. People spoke up for safety. But, the ignition switches still ended up getting used in the Cobalt and other small cars, leading to at least 13 deaths.
Barra said that reporting issues doesn't work if there is no follow-up, so that the Global Vehicle Safety Group will be accountable to take action or close issues.
Yes, this is very important. Employees might try the new culture and be more willing to speak up. What happens next is critical.
A few years ago, a large hospital that had a very public “Caller-Outer of the Month” program in which an employee was recognized each month for speaking up and pointing out safety problems that could harm patients. Leaders publicly stated that the culture needed to change, since most hospitals have this same problem as GM — people are far too often afraid to speak up because they might be blamed and punished for systemic problems that weren't really their fault.
After this program was running for a while, the hospital CEO told me how he eventually realized the hospital (and its leaders) had failed to properly follow up on the problems that were called out. Employees were recognized, but they grew disenchanted when things didn't get fixed. So, they adjusted their program and focused more on fixing, not just calling out.
We have to hope the same thing doesn't happen at GM. I can only hope that employees really get listened to.
My New Program:
So here is the new program I am announcing: it's called “Speak Up About Speak Up For Safety.” If you're a GM employee who tries to speak up, and you get punished or ignored, I encourage you to speak up. I will listen and I will recognize you for your courage in speaking up. You can contact me anonymously through my blog.
Or, you can post a comment here if you have ever spoken up about quality or safety in your workplace, wherever that is, only to be ignored or punished.
My Story About Speaking Up for Safety at GM:
In the GM engine factory where I worked, the floors were often very oily, as I wrote about in my blog post. There were hoses on retractable reels with what looked like fire hose nozzles that were used to spray the oil off the floor. There was one reel with a broken and glitchy retractor that didn't always work. I had reported this MANY times, but it apparently wasn't a high priority and it didn't get fixed.
One day, the hose started recoiling on its own and the heavy brass nozzle on the end was flying around in the air. It nearly hit a worker in the head. It possibly could have killed him.
I left a urgent sounding group voice mail (we had no email at the time) to the managers telling them this had to be fixed NOW. I pointed out, probably not very diplomatically, that I had reported this to maintenance many times before.
Later that day, I was back in the office area, and a pair of really rough hands were suddenly around my neck, with a creepy silence.
I turned and saw that the hands belonged to the grizzled old maintenance manager as he slowly removed them from my neck and gave me a glare. The manager had told me before that I was being a pain about reporting that hose problem, but this time he didn't say a word as he walked away.
The hose reel eventually got fixed, but I sure wasn't making any friends and I never got thanked by anybody other than the UAW worker out on the floor who knew I was sticking up for him and his colleagues.
When I worked at GM, the problem wasn't getting people to speak up — the problem was getting people to listen and follow up. That's what needs to change.
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Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation: