GM CEO Mary Barra Celebrates Employee Kaizen


Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 5.15.54 PMTime magazine recently featured GM's relatively new CEO, Mary Barra, on the cover and in this story:

Mary Barra's Bumpy Ride at the Wheel of GM

I can't find a free version of the story online. Here is a USA Today summary that says “Five things ‘Time' revealed about GM CEO Mary Barra.”

I've been critical of Barra and her “Speak Up For Safety” program, as I've written about before. I think that program misses the point. GM employees have been willing to speak up, the culture has punished that in the past. Barra needs to change the culture (but she hates the word “culture“). She says they need to change “behaviors” (this is a matter of semantics, I think). Behaviors are a big part of culture. Behaviors from leaders can either encourage people to speak up or behaviors can stifle that. It starts at the top.

The TIME article talks about some of the aftermath of the ignition switch recalls and the 15 employees who were fired. Is that really fixing the system?

From Time:


“A culture of silence, obfuscation, and buck passing.” Mary Barra didn't create that, but she needs to fix it. 15 employees “were involved” but who was responsible? Who was responsible in senior leadership? Senior leadership rarely gets punished for problems, at GM or in hospitals.

USA Today says:

2. She's having a tough time getting managers to accept responsibility. In the wake of the ignition-switch scandal, Barra has put a huge premium on individual managers taking responsibility for trouble spots and not passing the buck. But even when it comes to matters as routine as who to invite to a meeting, she's finding many inside the company won't make decisions without consensus.

That's what happens when people are afraid of being blamed for making a decision that turns out badly. Instead of blaming managers, Barra must change the culture (or change behaviors).

Also from USA Today:

3. She's most comfortable on a factory floor. Having studied electrical engineering at General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, Barra zeros in on creative thinkers on the assembly line, like a woman who uses a magnet tool bought at a dollar store to move parts.

This is the thing I like best about Barra and the thing that makes me most optimistic about her time as CEO. I have a friend who worked under her at a GM plant and she's a big fan of Barra's leadership.

There's a great story from Time that illustrates that new style (for GM) of leadership:


The old GM culture would have “chewed out” the worker for using an unapproved tool or for making engineering look bad. Instead of “writing her up” or doing things that would stifle her creativity, Barra celebrates the creativity and problem solving.

In a Kaizen process, the worker would come up with that idea (the dollar store magnet tool) and would talk about it with her supervisor or manager. There would be a collaborative discussion. If the tool doesn't cause any legitimate problem, maybe it should be adopted more widely, celebrated and shared? Kaizen is definitely NOT a culture where the managers control everything and stifle employee ideas, saying “no” because they can. Nor is Kaizen an approach where workers get to do whatever they want. We act as adults, collaborate, experiment, learn and share.

I hope that's what the “new GM” is all about.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleGemba Academy Interviews on Lean Hospitals, Healthcare Kaizen, & KaiNexus
Next articleDenver Jail’s Suggestion Box (and Problems) in the News
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. In my experience, I have observed that companies that celebrate the success of teams that identify and solve problems typically fare better than the companies who celebrate their managers not having any problems.

    It’s a difficult paradigm to shift but well worth the effort.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.