By on June 20, 2014

Violet GM RenCen

Though the Valukas report may have reaped 15 employees linked to the February 2014 ignition switch recall — including a number of senior executives — one former General Motors employee’s experience suggests doing the same to the lower levels of corporate leadership.

Jalopnik reposted a comment by a former engineer made during an op-ed about using the word “culture” in place of “people” as far as what was liable for the overall indifference expressed within the automaker. The engineer spent 10 months with GM, his employment ending at the same time the company found itself thrashed upon the rocks of the Great Recession, where he saw just how indifferent his then-employer could be.

The engineer said he spent more time in meetings that had little if anything to do with his work on the company’s eAssist hybrid system than he had doing the actual work he believed he was hired to do. Asking why his presence was always requested — especially if eAssist was not ever on the agenda — was met with admonishment by those higher on the totem pole. When the subject of doing actual work came up, they said he should spend 70 hours per week on work-related tasks without the expectation of overtime pay. Finally, upon doing his job — making a design decision for a press-in coolant tube — an alleged supervisor raged against the engineer for making the decision without having the proper authority to do so, claiming his prior experience meant nothing if it wasn’t earned at GM.

The story ends at the unemployment line — the engineer was let go because he installed a weather app on his assigned computer — where he had to fight the company for his benefit claim. He adds that while it’s easy to blame the senior executives for all of GM’s woes then and now, true change can only happen by clearing out the middle and lower levels of management of those who can’t and don’t want to be bothered to do the right thing.

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37 Comments on “Former GM Engineer: Lower-Level Management At Root Of Company’s Problems...”

  • avatar

    I think all large companies turn into this at some point. Rotten apples ruin the bunch. You take people who want to do a good job, who take pride in their work, and you beat them down with needless meetings, bean counting/discontenting to save pennies that will later cost millions to fix, and all the little ways the employee with good ideas is told to keep their head down, or that’s not the way we do things. Plus the high propensity of organizations to promote psychopaths to managerial positions.

    Management gets buddy-buddy with their yes-men and women, and those are the only ones to advance in the company. It’s pretty much the same with political parties in this country, anybody above the local township level is pretty much corrupt/in somebody’s pocket. (This is mainly because of the vast amounts of money needed to win these CON-tests)

    It’s why people are so surprised when they rarely get some DECENT customer service, like when Apple replaces their defective products on the spot (Apple has just as many defective products as other manufacturers, their huge profit margins make it possible for them to replace bad products for free, and earn future customer loyalty for their high-profit items).

    I dropped my Kindle Keyboard 3G, totally my fault, a model they stopped selling in favour of newer models. I called Amazon Kindle customer service, told them I dropped it, and they sent me a new one! Only questions were “was it dropped from below shoulder height,” and the only catch was I had to send the broken one back “so they could analyze it” (shipping paid by them!). They also said it was because I had it less than a year so far.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t see the same things as you.

      Yes, every big company ends up like this to some degree, but not necessarily for the reasons you list.

      When dealing with big sums of money, those in charge demand to know it’s being used well, so they come up with metrics. This isn’t a bad thing, so long as you measure what matters. The problem is that too often it isn’t. Then, people’s annual performance reviews are based on how they affect the metrics, so they push not for actual solutions/improvements, but for things that will make them look better.

      Information is lost with each communication. Vertically large companies have many steps between the top and bottom, and you will see the vision of the executives filtered, whittled, and diluted as it goes through each level. The executives in my company have some genuinely good ideas that they truly believe in. However, the moment those ideas hit someone who doesn’t understand or care about them, everything after them becomes corrupted and ineffectual.

      There’s also the many common problems of companies, like ‘not invented here,’ intellectual inertia, etc.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree that measurement bias and trying to hit the wrong numbers is the worst way to do things. Way back in my first job, they went around and installed car counters/timers in the drive-thru pavement at all the McDonald’s in our region.

        The bullshit metric we were supposed to meet? 90 seconds AVERAGE drive-thru time. So the customers were supposed to order, pay, and be handed their complete food order in 90 seconds. Average. Pretty hard to do when you have people hemming and hawing over what they want, or a minivan/family of 5 that has to ask each kid what they want and let them order it themselves because it’s oh, so, cute! So what would really happen was when we were slow (before they built the Walmart up the road) was an employee or manager would drive around the building in their own vehicle, stopping briefly in front of the order screen, payment window, and delivery window, to pull the average times down to the “bare minimum acceptable 120.” There was a red display with your average time on it mounted from the ceiling near the fryers to display/keep track.

        I also believe too many layers of management corrupt the message, and you need to have all layers of employee be able to discuss issues with management all the way up to CEO level if need be, as long as they do the research and have valid concerns. But these layers of management are there to PROTECT CEO level employees from knowing about the defects that are killing people, so they can testify in Congressional dog and pony shows “I had no knowledge of this issue.” Instead, you have petty fiefdoms and Me First and The Gimme Gimmes (but not the awesome punk band) everywhere, and brutal retaliation for going over your boss’s head is the norm.

        • 0 avatar

          “these layers of management are there to PROTECT CEO level employees from knowing about the defects that are killing people”

          I believe this is true, but how do you keep the heads of these CEOs buried in the sand when it’s so easy to read about problems and issues people are having when so much is being reported on a multitude of car sites and web forums?

          • 0 avatar

            You keep giving CEO’s bonus’s so they’re too busy off golfing or something to read car sites.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve also noticed that many fast food restaurants devote staff resources to the drive thru and leave the in store customers to rot in line.

        • 0 avatar

          Your story of your franchise management gaming the drive thu metrics reminds me of how some of our dealers gamed the CSI survey at one point.

          One of the questions on the survey read, “Was there ample parking?”. Some of the space challenged urban dealers put up signs labeling their existing few spaces “Ample Parking”.

          • 0 avatar

            Or the COMPSTAT or whatever it’s called debacle that major cities use (and was featured in The Wire series) where women are routinely harassed not to report rapes, and assault/thefts are downgraded or not reported at all to fake like the actual crime numbers are improving.

        • 0 avatar

          I worked as engineer at a defense contractor (that pretty much only did subcontract work for Lockheed Martin). When the “company ethics” fad went through, we all had “ethics training” and “ethics manuals”.

          The gist of the program was that rank and file engineers were expected to design to whatever goals that management created, and that any ethical issues were their fault. Should management be so crass as to suggest any ethical breeches, you were expected to forward such faults to the company ethics officer. The other thing was that the biggest thing that HR absolutely had to have from me was that ethics manual. I’m not sure what smoking gun they were afraid of, but the whole “you are at fault, and if somehow someone above you admitted to being at fault you have to volunteer to be fired” shtick seemed legally safe.

          As far as protecting the CEO (and other fast-tracked executives), I’m pretty sure nothing was going to happen to the President (this was a wholly owned subsidiary, and I’m sure that corporate headquarters had their own CEO) when he fired his wife to make sleeping with a subordinate easier. By the time I got there it was even less of an issue he had already married the subordinate. Guess who the ethics officer (and also handled security clearances) was?

      • 0 avatar

        The real question is what do companies do about it. GE under Jack Welch told Minimum Bob Nardelli to lop off the bottom 10% of the company that was under-performing. Then he was told later to do it again. GE essentially abandoned a part of its business that wasn’t profitable (enough) when it should have replaced low level management. GM, though, does nothing about its lower level management or operations.

    • 0 avatar

      Welcome to the management food chain.

      Lower-level management gets thrown under the bus.

      Upper management gets to drive the bus.

  • avatar

    Respondat superior.

  • avatar

    Useless MBAs and affirmative action hires making the decisions and disparaging anybody with brains who does the work.

    Isn’t this how corporate America has worked for decades?

    • 0 avatar

      Your first sentence is golden.

    • 0 avatar

      To a degree, this is true. Before the crash of ’08 it was more true than it is now. After that period, many companies figured out they actually needed real skill at the various helms. Many of those who fell into the category of your first sentence were either let go or shuffled to places where they could cause limited damage. Still, you encounter it from time to time and its funny to watch their departments try and operate autonomously, trying to avoid their inept direct “leadership” at every turn. The “manager” would sometimes be given the wrong number to conference calls, meeting invites with the wrong rooms or times etc.

  • avatar

    To add insult to injury or some sort of vindication for this engineer he added this to the end of his story …

    “Postscript: When the Buick Lacrosse eAssist debuted, I made a point of looking under the hood of one. The coolant tube on the MGU was my design.”

  • avatar

    OMG! I *thought* I had today off but when I read this I was suddenly transported into one of our conference rooms.

    Now I know GM is a corpse because I work inside another one.

  • avatar

    Read this the other day when it was first posted and I thought it was a great insight into the truth behind how many large organizations work. For additional insights, I suggest reading “Car” about the development of the MK2 Ford Taurus, as well as “Once Upon a Car” about the decline of the industry into bankruptcy. Both books will help paint the picture more fully.

    The reality is, this is what happens when you stop being a product driven company and start running on inertia. Your staff develop their own priorities and goals and career advancement becomes more important than the deliverable.

    In our company I have made a concerted effort to eliminate the ‘tumors’ as we call them: the people whose attitudes and goals aren’t aligned with the rest of the company and who then end up having a deleterious effect upon everyone else. Good employees get suffocated in these kinds of environments and they then start hiding under the corporate rules instead of doing the right thing.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    GM sounds like the military.

    Protect the institution first, then the Chain of Command second.

    • 0 avatar

      Big Al – Absolutely correct. Saw this while working for the large OEM coatings supplier Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF) and during my 20+ years of naval service. The worries and priorities of both were similar. With BASF the priority was the care, feeding and stroking of Dipl Ing’s (engineers) that are spread thickly through the management chain. Particularly galling with the Navy was the fact that national defense was about number 8 or 9 on the list of top 10 priorities, somewhat below the protection and enhancement of the career-path of senior officers.

  • avatar

    “How can you blame them for being maybe a little bitter? Look at what’s happening to them. In school they got brainwashed, like all of us, into believing the myth of the American Inventor-Morse and his telegraph, Bell and his telephone, Edison and his light bulb, Tom Swift and his this or that. Only one man per invention. Then when they grew up they found they had to sign all their rights to a monster like Yoyodyne; got stuck on some “project” or “task force” or “team” and started being ground into anonymity. Nobody wanted them to invent-only perform their little role in a design ritual, already set down for them in some procedures handbook.”
    -Thomas Pynchon “The Crying of Lot 49”

    If your reality is incongruent with your expectations, complaining about it won’t resolve the issue. Take action.

  • avatar

    I know fresh eyes can reveal much, but I also rarely trust the full report of someone on the job for 10 months. Perhaps the meetings were of value to someone who wanted to be a engineer for a part of the greater whole rather than someone who only looks in their parts bin. Although attacking the source is a logic fallacy, I don’t see much here other than a testimonial.

    • 0 avatar

      I work for a supplier to companies like GM (I don’t think we have any parts with GM anyway) and the bigger the company is, the more they seem to like these meetings. I’ve been to the meetings where 20 people attend, most of whom have nothing to contribute. Meetings about meetings. Meetings about streamlining meetings. The bigger companies seem so inefficient it’s hard to understand how they can continue to succeed. The man hours put into minor decisions are ridiculous, and the assumption that they know best about every possible scenario still results in poor decision making. Been there, done that, doing it again after lunch.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Very large and very old organizations tend to develop these types of unwritten rules and dogmas, the “culture” of the organization.

    GM, being one of the largest and oldest ones, of course has an entrenched culture.
    All companies develop their own culture, which at first may make them wildly successful, but later it becomes a handicap and causes the eventual demise of the company.

    There are plenty of examples, my favorite being Kodak (because I worked there in the 70s).
    Kodak’s culture was film first, film second, film all the way.
    They missed the digital revolution, even though they had developed (he-he) some of the early IP concerning digital imaging.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen this sort of culture in my prior place of employment. CEO’s have come and gone over the decades and each one had a vision of change but it rarely ever trickled down to the front lines.
    After I quit a slew of middle and lower management people were “escorted” from the building. I thought that maybe things would finally change until I read the list of replacements. Some were even bigger idiots than the ones fired.
    The best way to kill any real change or growth is to send it to a committee for analysis.

  • avatar

    An interesting article on GM’s legal culture:

  • avatar

    I’m disappointed that both Jalopnik and this site took an anonymous internet comment and gave it this level of credibility. I didn’t see anything in the Jalopnik article (or here) about vetting the poster, so to claim that anything he says ‘explains’ anything about GM culture is bogus. It could have been my Aunt Tillie (who has an irrational sixty-year grudge against Buick) who posted the comment. This just shows how blogs are *not* journalism.

    But let’s assume the guy is legit. I’m sorry, but his post reads like a bitter screed from a disgruntled ex-employee, at best. “Wah wah, too many meetings wasting my precious time and talent . . . my boss resented my competence and held me down . . . I got yelled at . . . they fired me because I have so many tubes in production . . . HR didn’t take me seriously, wah wah”.

    By his own admission . . . eighteen years, and he’s leaving his fourth job, at his fourth company. As a shmo design engineer, no less (or no more) . . . not a chief engineer, not a technical specialist, not even a senior engineer. So obviously not job hopping to bigger and better things at each position. Does not sound like a stellar resume to me.

    Sounds to me like maybe someone realized that mistakes were made when hiring, and got rid of a whiney b**ch when the opportunity arose.

    Note that I have no affiliation whatsoever with GM, but this whole story kinda stinks and tells me next to nothing about the place.

    (Admittedly, if this guy is at all accurate then his ex-boss sounds like a turd who should have joined him in the unemployment line.)

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree with a lot that you said; there’s a whole lot of disgruntled ex-employee here.

      What was amusing to read was one of the responses from another ex-GM engineer, he seemed pretty happy with his post-bankruptcy experiences there. He did recognize the fact that the first guy was operating during the time of bankruptcy and there may have been a different attitude within the corporation.

      Times like these all of the folks come out of the woodwork with their opinions. I’ve only ever worked for a Tier 1 supplier and even then my role was far removed from the production side (I worked for the in-house ad agency). Time will tell if/how GM will change. One can only hope for the best.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “true change can only happen by clearing out the middle and lower levels of management”

    Honestly, when does this ever happen, even in a small company? In a company GM’s size, it’s impossible.

    The only real cure will be GM’s total collapse into bankruptcy, or its absorption into another car company, with only a very small product portfolio surviving.

    NASA’s Rogers Commission report on the 1986 Challenger disaster didn’t prevent the 2003 loss of Columbia. The 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board acknowledged that they hadn’t actually learned the lessons from 1986. In both cases, they ignored the concerns of lower-level engineers, demanding of them proof of a problem rather than proof of safety.

    Many organization SAY they are continuously learning, but they really are not. I see it every day at work.

    GM isn’t learning; the Cadillac ELR is a current example.

  • avatar

    There was a time when GM was really just a skeletal framework where many semi-independent car makers all hung their hats, each marque a fiefdom unto itself. And at that time GM was the largest automaker in the US and so profitable and powerful it had to look for ways to deliberately sabotage itself to keep the anti-trust suites at bay.

    Then, SOMEBODY.. probably with an MBA… took a look at this system and said, “That’s way too inefficient, we need to consolidate.” And it’s been one train-wreck after another for GM ever since.

    It could be that the old-days of quasi-independence between the maker’s marques was the best way to run a company of such immense size. Could be when GM pulled the brands closer in that it neglected to push the resulting organization ‘down’ and squeeze out all the now redundant levels of management.

    All we can see is, things used to be a Lot better.

    • 0 avatar

      @Les, +1. Although the old structure relied on the “Sloan Hierarchy” which was sort of like GMs “Schlieffen Plan” – it only worked when the plan’s architect was there to maintain the discipline.

      “To win, we must endeavour to be the stronger of the two at the point of impact. Our only hope of this lies in making our own choice of operations, not in waiting passively for whatever the enemy chooses for us.” — Schlieffen

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