A Culture of Denial: Improvement and Language

The GM recall story is still unfolding, yet even at this stage the company’s own investigation and the testimony of its CEO point to culture as one of the main, if not the primary, underlying reasons why what happened at GM happened.

Anton Valukas of the law firm Jenner & Block wrote a report at the behest of GM. In it, he describes the culture that exists at GM that helped to keep the problem unaddressed.

On page 252 of the reported dated May 29, 2014, he describes a culture where there was “resistance and reluctance to raise issues or concerns in the GM culture,” a place where people were warned to “never put anything above the company” and to “never put the company at risk.”

Most significantly in a PowerPoint presentation in 2008, employees were apparently warned to “write smart” and were told to avoid certain words and provided alternatives. The words people were coached to avoid are telling because they strike at the heart of whether or not an organization has the culture to make fundamental process change.

Here are the words GM internal documents coached employees to avoid and the suggested alternatives:


Use Instead

“Problem” “Issue”; “Condition”; “Matter”
“Safety” “Has potential safety implications”
“Defect” “Does not perform to design”

The culture of command and control, one might even suggest thought control, is one of the best, starkest illustrations of why some organizations cannot improve and why culture is the ultimate leading indicator of process transformation (or lack thereof): if we cannot speak of “problems” and “defects” without fear, then breakthrough improvement (even modest marginal improvement for that matter) is unlikely. In one organization a senior leader said:

“We don’t use the word defect here, we say ‘opportunity’.”

That organization struggled with achieving fundamental, transformative change because the culture for years rewarded those who played it safe and avoided raising unpleasant and often embarrassing truths. As one reads the Valukas Report, one sees this same pattern with the same result.

A culture that fosters performance transformation is a culture that quickly identifies defects as “defects,” problems as “problems.” There is no punishment is identifying defects and problems; instead, culturally, to not quickly identify and highlight defects and problems would itself be a problem.

In organizations that are able to achieve process excellence, they decouple people from the process; when we point out a defect it is not a defect in your work ethic, loyalty or intelligence. Instead it is a defect on the process and we collectively need to get to root cause. When there is a problem in the process it is not a problem with you personally.

Leading organizations move away from the idea that “I am the process, the process is me” to standard work that we all do and which we collectively want and need to improve. That is the real hidden danger of not having standard work; when we allow each person to do things their own way it also creates the unsaid idea that anything that goes wrong with the work is now suddenly a personal issue because the process = that person.

GM has many resources; it has many clever people. Over the years it has had access to all the technology that a car company might want. Yet it struggles. Why? Culture.

That word comes up again and again from the CEO herself to commentators, investigator, legislators and investors.

The GM saga is another example, if one were needed, why culture is the trump card and why the practice of leaders going to the gemba to see for themselves the reality of the organization’s frontline culture is vital.

As to changing culture, how is that done? Appoint leaders who understand what an empowered, root cause problem solving, process culture feels like; remove leaders who undermine that culture and foster a culture of fear. Reward the finding and fixing of defects and problems at their root. Empower the frontline to find problems and to conduct root cause problems solving. Make it a central part of leaders’ jobs to support frontline innovation and to conduct their own root cause problem solving on issues that the frontline cannot resolve.

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