Open Thread: GM's Newspeak, Or How Culture Defines A Company
Over at Jalopnik, Patrick George has uncovered an internal Powerpoint that sets out very clear guidelines for how recalls and other quality problems should be discussed. GM’s communications team has been prone to awkward outbursts before, but this takes things to an almost Orwellian level.
GM employees are urged to avoid even mentioning the word “problem”, instead calling it an “issue” or “condition” or “matter”. There’s a longer list of bad words, including “Kevorkianesque” and “brakes like an X car”. Rather than detail the whole thing, I want to pose this question: this whole thing is presumably an exercise in media and communications management, but what does it say about a company culture when it actively discourages discussing problems in a frank and honest manner? I personally think that we’ve reached a point where this kind of heavy-handed attitude – one that expects the public to be too stupid to unquestioningly buy into the company narrative – does not work any longer. And I’m sure that GM isn’t the only firm that does this – they just happened to get caught.
I have a LOT of problems with GM, but I have no problem with this. As an aircraft mechanic, vague write ups from the aircrew and pilots are the bane of my (our) existence. Specifics are mandated because they save many man-hours of troubleshooting time. And judging by the specifics of the bullets on the right I'm assuming this is referring to directives on describing problems to those whose job it is to fix them.
I work for a large corporation and we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on "word smithing" issue reports to most accurately capture the condition observed, the potential causes and potential consequences. There is great benefit in stating in quantifiable terms the 'problem' or the delta between what was expected to happen and what actually happened. The alarming language used on the left makes decision makers very uneasy, which is probably a good thing in some cases. There is room for expressive or opinionated discussion but I do not see anything wrong with enforcing a policy that omits such language from formal issue reporting channels. A succinct description of the problem is probably all that they are being asked for, any implications that problem may have on safety are probably best left to formal analysis or investigation. Coming from a heavily regulated industry where our formal issue reports are made public, it is very important to use words like 'safe' and 'illegal' carefully.
Personally, I'm of the belief that you should NEVER document ANYTHING in the first place. Red Green once said, while building a custom trailer for a car, that he wanted to make sure that the trailer tongue was fastened onto the body of the unit very securely, because loose tongues had a way of getting guys like him in trouble.
GM is assuredly not alone. Two different observations: One, the PowerPoint is absolutely correct that problems can only be solved with precise detailed documentation of what actually happened, not by some emotional outburst. All of the people who "get" to drive evaluation vehicles are paid well for the privilege. Either it is a coveted off the assembly line job for an hourly worker, or a management perk. They are professionals and should report any issues professionally. Two, my favorite Orwellism used by my former employer is "thermal event" for fire. That, of course, was the truly forbidden 4 letter F word.