Consumer Law

Did 'corporate speak' and PowerPoint lead to complacency at GM?


General Motors headquarters in Detroit. Jonathan Weiss

General Motors employees were taught to be careful when writing about safety issues.

A 2008 Power Point presentation had some helpful suggestions, according to a report by Jenner & Block chairman Anton Valukas on the automaker’s failure to respond to defective ignition switches.

A “problem” should be described as an “issue, condition, matter.” The word “safety” should be replaced with “potential safety implications.” The word “defect” should be nixed in favor of “does not perform to design.”

A defective ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts that could switch to the accessory or off position? GM personnel didn’t make the connection between the low-torque switch, which required less force to turn, and airbags that wouldn’t deploy when the switch changed out of the run position. They saw stalls caused by the switch as a “customer convenience” problem, rather than a safety problem, according to the report (PDF).

The Washington Post notes the proliferation of “corporate speak” at GM. “Idioms and corporate cliches are more than just buzzwords that threaten our linguistic sanity,” the story says. “At GM they stood to mask real meaning, obscured leaders’ responsibilities, and created labels that hindered the critical thinking needed to keep real problems from getting worse.”

The story cites another instance where words got in the way. A top GM lawyer asked a vice president of global quality to be a “champion” in the probe of the switch “nondeployment” problem. The executive believed he was supposed to be a person who helps the team remove roadblocks and obtain resources. After that executive’s retirement, a new executive stepped in who also did not understand the urgency of the safety issue.

A Wall Street Journal article says PowerPoint presentations were a substitute for meaningful communications at GM. In one instance in 2009, then GM CEO Rick Wagoner “may have viewed” a PowerPoint presentation that included a “back-up” slide about a change in design to the Cobalt’s key. The change was described as a move to reduce warranty costs as a result of customer complaints about the ignition switching out of the run position because of a heavy key chain swinging in a wide slot.

“What if someone had simply stood up,” the Wall Street Journal asks, “without a visual prop, and said: ‘People are dying’?”

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