Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

General Motors: Too Big to Fix?

"Business Decisions"

Could some companies be just too big to manage effectively? They may offer too many dark corners, too many layers of responsibility, too many opportunities for their executives to get distracted and forget.

Complex and intractable problems do not find solutions under such circumstances. On the other hand, these are ideal circumstances if you have anything to hide.

That seems to be what investigators and reporters are finding as they sift through over 200,000 pages of documents, looking into the Cobalt’s ignition problems that caused several deaths. The defects themselves were not hard to find – and indeed they had been found. Now two of the engineers who found them have been “suspended.”

It turns out that both of them were “deposed last year in a lawsuit filed against G.M. by the family of a Georgia woman who died in a Cobalt crash in 2010,” according to The New York Times. “In his deposition [one of the engineers] was asked by the family’s lawyer . . . whether G.M. had made ‘a business decision’ not to make the ignition switch stronger and less prone to failure.”

‘That is what happened, yes,’ he said.” (See, “GM Suspends Two Engineers.”)

But it took other documents to illuminate what exactly that meant. In 2004, “an engineer who was working for G.M., described the problem, but said, ‘After talking to Ray DeGiorgio [one of the suspended engineers], I found out that it is close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch.’”

“He added, ‘The switch itself is very fragile and doing any further changes will lead to mechanical and/or electrical problems.’”

“A month later, in March 2005, the inquiry was closed, partly because of cost issues, with this explanation: ‘The lead time for all the solutions is too long. The tooling cost and piece price are too high. None of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned (ignition turn off) during driving. Thus none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.’” (See, “GM Documents Show Years of Talks on Flaw.”)

That seems to mean that the problem was too costly to fix. And that was that. The problem had been assigned, researched and then disposed of.

Clearly this is not the first time that problems have been “disappeared” in large organizations, and for sure it won’t be the last time. But what can be done about it? Will “business decisions” become the standard euphemism for abandoned dilemmas and ethical lapses? This is the kind of thing that gives big business and bad name.

Mary Barra, GM’s CEO who is testifying before an angry and skeptical Congress, is under pressure to come up with something better. But Congress itself is notorious for short attention spans and easy distractions, and for sure it will move on. Will she?

Perhaps we could have a “Lost and Found” office for such problems, someplace to park them with someone assigned to remember their existence. That would not be a popular job, but perhaps the person could be paid enough to keep at it.

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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