Hoo, Boy — Change for Change’s Sake; and Shamed Into Doing Right

Written by Chuck Gruenwald on March 15, 2014

Back in 1985, Chrysler had diffused a public relations situation before it had an opportunity to become a scandal. Employees at a Saint Louis assembly plant were caught disconnecting odometers on vehicles in an attempt to sell them as new, despite technically being demos.

Instead of trying to “hide” this practice via traditional damage control – or in other words, ignore what had happened and hope that the media finds another story to chase, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca acknowledged what had happened with an ad campaign that not only admitted guilt, but promised restitution to customers who had unknowingly purchased the cars in question. The end result was a story that very few people remember.

Fast forward to last week when General Motors announced a recall that spans several model years and product lines.

While GM’s latest problem has only recently become public, there are questions as to when GM became aware of poorly-designed ignition cylinders that cause cars to shut down when the ignition switch is bumped or if a heavy key ring causes the ignition key to twist to the OFF position.

Sadly, it seems as though the act of making bad decisions within the management structure at GM has become a storied tradition.

One complaint that consistently pops up when talking about GM’s quality problems is that a decision is made over and over to discontinue a model just as its inherent flaws appear to have been engineered away. This “redesign and replace” approach is the opposite of other car manufacturers that continue to “refine and improve” the models within their lineups.

When an entirely new vehicle is introduced, the cycle of fixing design and build problems starts over; old lessons that are learned seem as if they are ignored. From the late sixties until the early nineties, GM used a similar ignition cylinder design in most of the cars and trucks that it had assembled. This design didn’t have the problem that this new cylinder does.

Besides several ignition cylinder redesigns, another difference between newer cars and their predecessors is that new steering columns – from the dash board to the steering wheel – are not as long as they were twenty years ago; the dash board is closer to the driver and front seat passenger. With this shorter steering column, the ignition key is closer to a driver’s right leg. Depending on the physical build of the driver, it is possible to bump the ignition key with the driver’s leg. This shorter steering column also severely limits the angle in which a steering column will tilt, thereby limiting just how much a driver’s leg and ignition key are separated.

If anything, “change for the sake of change” has great potential to act as a step backwards.

These defective ignition cylinders, as well as other poorly-conceived parts and systems may have their roots in a corporate culture that is comprised of leaders who have no love and/or limited knowledge of their products.

A few weeks ago, a telemarketer called me at work in a futile attempt to sell me a subscription for an electronics magazine. After barely introducing herself, she started reading some prepared notes about her award-winning bird cage liner. In what little she had said before I interrupted her – since I was not only busy, but also on the Do Not Call list – I didn’t hear any enthusiasm in her voice, no actual knowledge of what she was trying to sell. For some reason, it’s not hard to imagine leaders of the automotive industry having this uninterested-in-their-wares mentality.

It’s no secret that arrogance is a tumor in the business world.

When a large corporation such as General Motors engages in complacency, cover-ups, denial, regulatory capture and crony capitalism, these actions are exploited by the anti-free-market groups that try to pass crony capitalism off as business as usual within the free market as a whole.

If the knowledge of this defect within GM goes back several years, and a decision had been made at that time to not take any action, then there are family members of drivers and passengers who had died as a result of this issue who deserve an answer for such cavalier complacency.

Whenever a car-maker is faced with the possibility of a costly recall and the related bad publicity, Chrysler circa 1985 should act as an example of what to do in order to make an unfavorable issue disappear. Unfortunately, Chrysler had to be shamed into stopping this practice. Perhaps a more important lesson is to not engage in behavior that one knows he or she will be ultimately shamed out of.

Image: Courtesy of: http://www.tolucanoticias.com/2009_07_01_archive.html

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Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for uncommonshow.com