Accountability in Leadership: My GM Flashback Story and the Blame Game

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I've written before about Bob. He was the Plant Superintendent (the #2 in command, if you will) at the GM Livonia Engine Plant, where I started my career from 1995 to 1997. See some previous posts about my time there.

Bob was a character and a half. He was old school. He talked with a pretty clipped Chicago (Chick-ah-ko) accent. When I say, “in command,” it was a command-and-control environment. He wore a toupee

He liked to yell and scream. And curse. And spit. He seemed to think this was effective. He did this all a lot.

I was the industrial engineer for a few “machining” departments, which cut metal for parts like engine blocks and connecting rods. Those parts then flowed to engine assembly.

When machining equipment broke down and was inoperable for a long time, Bob would appear. He'd stand and glare with his arms crossed. As if staring and looking mad magically got stuff fixed. He'd yell, he'd stomp. I think this sometimes made people LESS willing to work hard, LESS motivated to get things fixed and running, as if to spite Bob.

He'd yell and scream at the daily production review meeting, as if that helped inspire anyone.

I observed a lot of this behavior during my two years there. Bob acted this way when working under the plant manager who I simplistically call the “Bad Plant Manger” and he still acted ths way under the “Good Plant Manager,” each of whom I worked under for a year.

In early 1997, I decided I was going to leave GM to go study at MIT, so I became known as “Short Timer” (or “that jerk who's leaving”).

I was probably in my last few weeks there, counting the hours until I was gone.

One day, Bob called me and another young industrial engineer (Pam, she had been there a few or two longer than me) into his office to talk about something. I forget why he called us in. But I didn't think we were in trouble. I wasn't expecting to get yelled at (which seems odd, considering his track record and patterns).

Anyway, right after Pam and I sat down, Bob decided to put on a show, apparently for our education or benefit.

He said, “One sec” and turned away from us. He spun his chair to his credenza and dialed one of the area managers, Todd, using speed dial. It sounded like “Tad” the way he said it.

Poor Todd got blindsided. And he didn't know Bob had an audience on speakerphone. Todd answered the phone. It definitely wasn't a cell phone, it was 1997. Todd was probably either in his office, which wasn't too far down the hall, or he might have been out in the supervisor's office closer to the factory floor.

Bob was yelling and screaming. This was a monlogue, not a conversation. Bob wasn't happy with the inventory levels, or the throughput rate, or both, or something else. Bob yelled at Todd for a few minutes.

Bob hung up and turned back to me and Pam.

I felt brave. Or I should say that, for once, it didn't feel risky to ask the question I prepared myself to ask.

In the languge of “psychological safety,” which I didn't know then, asking this question was a “vulnerable act.” But, I was getting ready to leave for MIT, so my own personal risk equation changed. If he fired me or decided to start yelling me at me, so be it.

Before Bob could start whatever monologue or dialogue he wanted to have with us, I jumped in with a question that I remember as something like this:

“Um, Bob, so…. um, the way you were treating Todd… um yelling at Todd like that… how is that helpful?”

I think I was seeking first to understand, although I didn't like Bob's behavior and I hadn't liked it over those two years. I think it would have counted as a “humble inquiry” type question because I certainly didn't know the answer.

Bob didn't directly answer the “how is it helpful?” part, but he did try to explain WHY he acted that way.

He said something like…

“You see, I yelled at Todd because my boss called and yelled at me [over that performance problem]. And his boss had called and yelled at him….”

His boss, at that time, was the “good plant manager,” who had the benefit of learning from Toyota at the famed NUMMI plant. Larry, one of the “NUMMI commandos” was a breath of fresh air to me. He was very different than the previous plant manager. But he still might have yelled. Larry had GM DNA in him still.

Before long, after going through a few layers (and they were probably all “him” back in the day)… Bob quite literally cited the Board of Directors probably calling and yelling at the CEO.

Now, I doubt our local plant problem had the attention of the Board.

But, Bob's general point was that sh!t runs downhill. The culture is set by those at the top. He had a point.

Bob was in a leadership role at the plant, but he was following the lead of… his leaders.

It's possible that yelling and screaming wasn't Bob's preferred mode of operating. But he had managed to get good at it. But that it was effective, but he followed the behaviors that others modeled.

I wonder if it bothered Bob on some level to yell at people like that. He was “just doing his job,” as people might say — and doing it the way that others expected him to do it.

The “command and control” mindset is strong in healthcare, still, in 2023. There might be a little less yelling and some of the punishing behaviors might be a little more subtle or even passive aggressive.

What happens when a young MHA graduate joins the management team at a hospital with that culture. Talk all you want about “how the new generation wants to do things differently,” are they able to hold true to that? Are they able to push back against that old way?

Or do they go along to get along?

I saw a friend ask the other day about focusing on the next generation of emerging leaders. You can't get the Bobs (in manufacturing or healthcare) to change their habits after 40 years perhaps.

But can that next generation reach the top with the intent of changing things. Or does the system inevitably change those who rise through the ranks? Does that perpetuate the old system?

I think our best bet is when senior leaders — the CEO, I guess — start the culture change NOW, from the top. Larry, the second plant manager at GM, was really changing the culture and that started with HIS behaviors. That said, I'm sure he was an outlier, where the leaders above him (up through the CEO and the Board) weren't “lean thinkers.”

Anyway, that's my memory of a 1997 story… finishing a blog post draft that I started back in 2014. I think there's some relevance to what we're facing today in healthcare or other settings…


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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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mark,
    I have very similar stories from the 1980’s, my Superintendent in a USW plant was an ex-drill sergeant. He wore a leather flight jacket, cowboy boots, and wore his hardhat tilted to one side: We called him John Wayne because of his walking gate throughout the plant. 6 years of misery for me as the “college – boy”. Long story short I was able to get him to stop lying, collect data, and make intelligent decisions in year’s 7-8. I’m a Deming disciple who’s been able to change leadership as a VP Ops/General Manager over the last 20 years. Just found your site via a LinkedIn post.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Brian. I have many memories of the UAW derisively referring to managers as “college boy” and terms like that.

      I’m glad you were able to influence “John Wayne” in a positive way…

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