General Motors Death Watch 104: TMI?
Gary Cowger recently sat down with Wards Automotive for a good old kvetch. GM’s group Vice President of Global Manufacturing and Labor Relations complained that news of his employer's financial woes was overshadowing their brilliant new products. Gary blamed excessive media coverage and speculation. “There’s a lot of noise in the system, and that’s because we live in an age of transparency like the world has never seen before… It’s almost too much information out there.” As you might expect from such a staunch defender of bridled free speech, Cowger has taken steps to rectify the situation– at least in-house.
In 1999, Cowger installed a “communicator” in every GM plant and office. He's charged these management mouthpieces with explaining GM's hopes, dreams and schemes to their co-workers. Gary’s convinced that his network of [dis]information specialists has already delivered big dividends. “I think the open communication with people at all levels helped facilitate our ultimate health-care deal, because everyone was convinced there was a problem and everyone was willing to work to solve it.”
At the risk of bringing the noise, note Gary’s unintended irony. Deploying a bunch of
company stooges "communicators" to “convince” employees to rubber stamp a bogus health care deal window-dressed by both management and the UAW doesn’t sound like the definition of “open communication” to me. Yes, but– you gotta give Gary credit for holding his nose and dipping his e-toes into the “new media.” His department now conducts regular on-line chats with 40 GM employees from around the world.
Cowger proudly asserts that participants in his electronic confabs aren’t required to reveal their identity– at least not to each other. (Cowger selects the group.) Gary assured Wards that these “what’s up with that?” cyber chats stimulate the proverbial frank and open exchange of ideas. “They will tell you honestly and in volumes what we should be doing,” Cowger revealed. “I think it’s great for not only cutting through the clutter and getting to the heart of things, but it’s a way of building a better GM.”
A better GM. If only. In all probability, Gary’s electronic forums do nothing more than give a small group of inherently disgruntled employees a chance to blow off some steam– and raise expectations that won’t be fulfilled. Although Wards didn’t press him on this (or any other) issue, can Mr. Cowger point to a single important change in GM’s process or products that stems from his twisted take on electronic Glasnost?
While I have no doubt that ramming a faux health care concession down employees’ throats constitutes a victory of some sort ($3b health care VEBA anyone?), the methodology involved indicates that GM’s culture of paranoia, unaccountability and corporate constipation continues unabated.
In fact, I reckon nothing significant has changed over at RenCen since we began this chronicle of GM’s declining fortunes. Factories are closed. Departing workers have been paid off. Output has declined. New products have been launched. And? GM is still staggering around under the weight of the same old stodgy leadership, cannibalistic dealers, obstreperous unions, half-baked products, marketing misfires, "not an incentive really" fire-sales, Bacchinalian auto shows (how much is that Carmen in the window?), backdraft cash burn, etc.
These days, the company talks-up global platform development as The Big Change. But GM NA still consists of eight increasingly nonsensical brands– and their attendant fiefdoms– all fighting for corporate resources. The fact that they’re going to do it on an international basis isn’t a game changer. Saturn now sells an Opel-derived car alongside a rebadged Pontiac. So?
According to turnaround specialist Gregory Charleston, any business experiencing a rapid, seemingly endless decline in its market share must make radical changes. The Managing Director of Conway MacKenzie & Dunleavy says that companies facing flagging income must cut deep, across the board. While big old companies like GM are reluctant to prune their pals in middle management, prune they must.
“If you have to do things in a new way, you need new people– or less people– to do it.” So how’s that particular part of the program going over at GM? “My sense is that there’s still a LOT of room there.”
Charleston’s focus on GM’s stultified middle management reflects his belief in the overriding importance of corporate culture. Charleston says members of GM’s entrenched bureaucracy should be pushed out the door, and fresh blood brought in. So where does that leave CEO Rick Wagoner, a man who never worked a day of his life outside GM?
“I’m always leery of corporate executives who grew up within an organization… Can Wagoner turn around GM’s corporate culture when he’s known nothing else? I imagine that’s a question that GM’s Board of Directors has been grappling with for years.”
Or not. Maybe Gary Cowger should recruit a random sampling of blue and white collar workers and put them online with GM’s Board of Bystanders. They could discuss Rabid Rick’s ability to lead a cultural revolution within GM. Or would that be too much information?
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