My Skepticism about GM’s “Speak Up for Safety” Program

worker yelling through megaphone

I posted a new article on LinkedIn:

My New Program: Speak Up About “Speak Up for Safety” at GM.”

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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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. A comment by Zane Ferry on LinkedIn:

    It’s unfortunate that a quintessentially American company must deploy a program to encourage the most basic ethical thinking and behavior. When did “Don’t kill our customers” become a bad business decision, by the way? It is the duty of leadership to model that highest standard of ethical behavior, reiterate that message, and look quickly and deeply into any questionable issues. Plenty of good people have left GM (and, to be fair, other US automakers) in recent decades because there was no such leadership. I would like to believe we are finally witnessing the end of long, bad era of disregard for customers and quality-focused employees.

  2. I’m dubious of of GM’s Speak up for Safety plan, especially in light of them suspensing two engineers. The funny thing is that my hospital has a program called Speak up for Safety. But ours is combined with high reliability and lean training, and supports our continuous improvement efforts.

    Anyway, here’s a link to our Speak up for Safety video:

    • Thanks for sharing. When the CEO says, “You have my support,” how is that demonstrated? Do you think people really think they will be supported?

      It would be nice if the video included an example of what happened when somebody spoke up… a real example that shows management walks the talk.

      I could imagine many healthcare professionals in many organizations rolling their eyes at a video like this… but if the leadership support, action, and culture is really there, then a video like this is probably a good reminder to speak up.

      I’d guarantee that the first time a person speaks up and does NOT get the right response, word about that will spread very quickly.

      I wonder if GM leaders are sending the message that was in your video of “Nobody’s perfect, we all make mistakes”??

      • The “Speak up for Safety” video is just one piece of the high reliability and lean training. You’re right, by itself it wouldn’t have much impact, but we tie it to a set standard behaviors, train physicians and leaders to really listen when a colleague or staff have a concern, and we’re growing a lean culture that make continuous improvement part of our daily activities. Our culture isn’t perfect, but I’m glad to say the message in the video is sincere and backed up by the action of our leaders.

        I wonder if GM will be able to say the same.

  3. Great comment from Gabe Offerman as part of our discussion in the comments:

    If a dangerous problem exists on the floor and the people there right now know about it and have the where-with-all to solve it then and there, I do not see how any organization should force employees to continue working in such an environment in good conscience while they file paperwork and leave messages for managers instead of taking the known action. Good managers implore their team-members that if they see a safety problem and can fix it that they go ahead and do so. If that’s not the culture, there’s a problem.

    So, perhaps an even better wording of the program would be “Speak up, Organize, and Take responsible and collaborative action for safety.”… Would you agree? … in the end, the best result is a culture where employees look out for the safety of their co-workers, the business itself, and their customers by nature and out of habit. Leadership, Critical thinking, and Initiative in problem solving are imperatives all company cultures should cultivate with complete devotion.

  4. I think GM needs to have an extreme amount of transparency around this initiative if they are going to build trust with employees and the public.

    Virginia Mason Medical Center has shared data on the number of Patient Safety Alerts that have been called in their hospitals. I think GM could do the same.

    Better yet is Alcoa publishing REAL-TIME employee safety data on their website. GM could do the same in regards to the number of Speak Up For Safety instances they have, without necessarily sharing details of each one.

  5. It’s beyond belief that many folks in top management, including Mary Barra, didn’t know about the defect that cost 13 lives and it will cost millions of dollars. They have certainly failed the basic test of personal integrity. And, of course, GM’s integrity as an organization must be severely called into question.

    Reminds me of “Unsafe At Any Speed” by Ralph Nader calling GM out on the rear-engined car that would over steer because it didn’t have the proper engineering. (the Chevrolet Corvair). From Wikipedia:

    “George Caramagna, the Chevrolet suspension mechanic (who, Nader learned, had fought management over omission of the vital anti-sway bar that they were forced to install in later models) was vital to this issue. The missing bar had caused many crashes and it was Caramagna who precipitated the whole controversy by staying his ground on the issue.”

    So, there are people of integrity who will speak up but there aren’t many. I have a family member who spoke up, repeatedly, about a well-known plan in a major company that has been a disaster. Multi-billion dollar disaster. He was told that he had to either shut up or leave. He was proven right and even had a meeting with upper management where they admitted they “Should have listened to you earlier”. So, you can do it (call out bad plans) and survive, but it isn’t easy.

  6. The British NHS has a program called “Speak Out Safely.”

    I wonder how that’s working for them.

    Our Speak Out Safely (SOS) campaign aims to encourage NHS organisations and independent healthcare providers to develop cultures that are honest and transparent, to actively encourage staff to raise the alarm when they see poor practice, and to protect them when they do so.

    We want:

    The government to introduce a statutory duty of candour compelling health professionals and managers to be open about care failings

    Trusts to sign up to our campaign, making a public commitment to supporting staff who raise concerns

    The government to undertake a wholesale review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, to ensure whistleblowers who take concerns outside their organisation if they are not taken seriously internally are fully protected.

  7. From today’s WSJ:

    GM Officials Ignored Alert on Car Stalling
    Switch Engineer, Others Were Sent 2005 Warning Over Bump Disabling Engine

    1) There’s new allegations that somebody warned about a vehicle safety problem… back in 2005 and a recall was just issued this week (vehicles stalling because the ignition switch would get out of position if the car hit a pothole). What happened to that engineer who spoke up for safety? She is still employed there.

    2) Barra says, of the “speak up for safety” program: “I am personally getting information from employees,” she said.”

    Hmmm. What will they do with that information?

    • Would Deming have scoffed at the idea that “safety is everybody’s responsibility?” He would have said that is senior management’s responsibility, as they own “the system;” right?

  8. I gave you a rushed answer Mark.Early 1982 Windsor Ontario my first Deming seminar,his first book was released that month.He was obviously very proud of it ,there were over 500 people there. I was there because my plant manager sent me as a result of him calling me to his office and giving me an article by Deming, I had not heard of D at that time. The article was about 3 pages and I was drawn to the 14 points as he was speaking after scanning the 14 points for about 15 seconds I told the plant manager “we are going to do Deming at the GEAR.”

    To your point the 14 th point said ” Management shall on a day by day basis reinforce the above 13 points ” as to statistics and variation I had very little knowledge but as to who does what in the work place I knew of my experience and the GM contract ” management manages and workers work ” ” PERIOD ”

    Around 1985/6 in a conversation with Deming I told him that 80/20 was wrong and that it was more like 99% plus management,he eventually came pretty close to that

    In the event that there is some doubt about managements ” property rights ” in any organization,which by the way they will fight to the death about I offer up an explicit example of what it looks like in a legal document/contract

    this type of language is to bee found in just about all labor agreements with few exceptions : Saturn vein g one of them

    (8) The4 right to hire : promote: discharger discipline for cause : and to maintain discipline and efficiency of employees, is the sole responsibility of the Corporation except that Union members shall not bed discriminated against as such. In addition, the products to be manufactured,the location of the plants,the schedules of production,the methods,processes and means of manufacturing are solely and exclusively the responsibility of the Corporation.

  9. Here is an article about a similar safety hotline that was set up at Asiana Airlines… with a “safety czar.” I think this shows how a CEO of an airline, hospital, or company can’t delegate safety. It has to come directly from line leadership.

    Is Asiana Undermining Its Own Safety Chief?
    String of incidents at South Korean airline prompts worries safety czar doesn’t have enough power


    Two years ago, in the wake of a fatal accident in San Francisco, Asiana Airlines Inc. brought in a high-profile expert to revamp safety procedures at the South Korean carrier.

    But after a number of new safety concerns,—including one last month where a jet skidded off a runway in Japan, some Asiana pilots and independent experts are questioning whether the company could be inadvertently undermining its safety czar’s effectiveness.

    Asiana’s safety chief, Akiyoshi Yamamura, doesn’t have power over hiring and firing pilots, and can only propose measures that must be approved by a safety panel he doesn’t lead. That challenges his ability to effect meaningful change in safety policy, experts say.

    For example, an Asiana pilots union leader said members aren’t using a hotline Mr. Yamamura established to anonymously propose safety improvements because they don’t think he has the authority to make changes.

    But an Asiana spokesman said Mr. Yamamura isn’t responsible for detecting and punishing violators—a role experts say most safety czars have.

    Mr. Yamamura’s role is limited to proposing measures, the spokesman said. His remit covers the entire company, but his department sits apart from the flight business division, which manages pilot personnel matters, the spokesman said.

    Safety infractions are reported to a disciplinary division, which doesn’t report to Mr. Yamamura.

  10. So at least three times now, GM employees have spoken up for safety.

    From November 2014, GM and Barra recognized a co-op student for speaking up.

    More recently, there was another ignition switch issue reported through the program.

    And in another case, there’s a risk that windshield wipers can cause a fire, which was reported through the program.

    The problem was discovered when a wiper motor overheated at a factory near Lansing, Michigan, where the SUVs are made. The plant’s quality manager reported the problem on Sept. 21 through GM’s “Speak up for Safety” program, and GM began investigating five days later.

  11. 2022 update from a Detroit News article.

    “in April 2014, she started the “Speak up for Safety” program at GM, to rid the auto- maker of a “don’t tell” culture and encourage employees to report vehicle safety concerns. Since inception, there have been 35,842 submissions to the “Speak up for Safety” program, according to GM’s 2021 Sustainability Report.”

    Here is that policy:

    The article doesn’t say what happens after those submissions.

    The Speak up for Safety program also includes employee safety.

    “Employees and others are encouraged to first report workplace safety concerns through the Employee Safety Concern Process or other existing local reporting processes. You may also raise safety concerns at any time using the Speak Up for Safety process.”

    They do have a page about their workplace safety culture:


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