4 safety culture lessons from GM's ignition switch scandal

General Motors' ongoing troubles over faulty ignition switches are a clear example of how not to build a culture of safety. Unfolding over 11 years, organizational failures at GM led to airbag failures linked with at least 13 deaths.

While the company recently announced 15 firings and additional disciplinary measures related to the oversight, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe into the matter uncovered several fatal features for any company that deals with significant amounts of risk. The following are safety culture lessons to be learned from GM's failures, adapted from Bloomberg Businessweek coverage of the NHTSA's probe:

1. Start simple to identify root causes. Initially, GM investigators failed to consider that airbag nondeployment could have been caused by something as simple as a faulty switch. This prevented discussions of simpler root causes as the problem continued, which greatly prolonged safety risks for drivers and passengers.

2. Transparency invites stakeholders to engage. The events of safety meetings remain mysterious in many instances; employees thought taking notes would create legal liabilities for the company and did not want to be penalized. In addition, GM warned its employees against "judgmental" language, such as the word "problem," in written documentation.

3. Discussion is incomplete without action. Despite the lack of minutes, interviews revealed there was plenty of agreement during meetings on action plans for addressing the airbag issue. However, there was very little follow-through, which prevented identification of the engineering error for more than a decade. "It was an example of what one top executive described as the 'GM nod,' when everyone nods in agreement…but then leaves the room and does nothing," according to the report.

4. Reward prioritization of safety above all. The GM team responsible for the vehicles with airbag trouble avoided replacing faulty switches when it the switches fell under scrutiny, as they were concerned the fix for other vehicle lines using the same switch would come out of their budget. In addition, one employee tasked with writing safety reports to GM dealerships said he was reluctant to be tough on safety, perceiving "his predecessor had been pushed out of the job for doing just that."

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