Some Thoughts on Creating a New Culture at General Motors

Hi folks -- for more than 30 years I have been studying the history of institutions and how they work, or don't work, as the case may be. So the departure of Fritz Henderson from GM gives me an opportunity to comment on the nature of institutions -- their continuity and traditions, and how difficult it is to actually change them from within. There exists an institutional momentum that strives for stability and resists new ideas, and new kinds of people who might challenge the organization either from within or external to it. And as much as people within institutions state that they want to make the firm or school better, they tend to hire and promote their own kind, and not individuals who are considerably better than them and thus threaten their egos or very existence. So institutional drift goes on. John Kennedy Toole's "Confederacy of Dunces" is a very apt title to more than a piece of fiction -- it is lived out every day in numerous organizations that claim to be "emerging," but in fact merely just run in place. Newer hires accommodate the system rather than challenge it out of job security or fear. High paid administrators or executives want to maintain their standard of living. Furthermore, within organizations people identify with particular kinds of things -- products, processes, management systems. And these identifications are more than individual, as they can be collective protective cliques that ensure difficulties for any outsider trying to come into a situation and radically change it for the better. Every organization seemingly has a "old dog bullshitter," who hasn't done much at all in the 30+ years on the job, but who is clever enough to control the mechanisms that make change hard to accomplish.
In sum, it wasn't Rick Wagoner or Fritz Henderson that led to GM's decline, it was a pyramidal line and staff organizational structure where up and down the organization chart individuals and small groups protected themselves at all costs. It is for that reason that the only hope for GM is to shatter the structure, remove many of the old dogs, identify true talent and start over.
Complete bankruptcy was the best route to take at GM as we look back in hindsight. The frightening thing is that our federal government is in a similar institutional situation, and here the only recourse may be a kind of revolution that was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson as necessary to renew the country.


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