The public relations teams supporting General Motors have been in high gear these past weeks for obvious reasons.  Lapses in product design and quality management practices, and what has been billed by business and general mediaas the worst U.S. product safety crisis in recent memory has led to a series of product recalls among multiple GM brands involving upwards of 2.6 million vehicles.

GM desperately needs to move beyond its current state and restore confidence in its brands and in its business management model.  Suppliers and partners associated with supporting this U.S. based OEM need to also move on to more collaborative and win-win relationships, but that requires a different GM perspective.

When Mary Barra was appointed CEO of General Motors, this author communicated our Supply Chain Matters elation for this announcement. Our enthusiasm came from the dual fact that not only was Barra the first senior female executive ever to lead a global automobile manufacturer, but more importantly, because her 35 year background included plant management, manufacturing, product design and development leadership experience. She is also an engineer by training. Barra likely understands the elements of producing high quality cars and trucks and the important contribution of the GM supply chain ecosystem in achieving that goal.

If readers want to gain a candid perspective on Mary Barra’s current challenges in transforming GM, we recommend the recently published Time article, Mary Barra’s Bumpy Ride at the Wheel of GM. Author Rana Foroohar pens an insightful perspective on Barra’s management style and her efforts to change a rather in-bred corporate culture built around functional fiefdoms and little accountability. She describes Barra as the consummate “outsider-insider” with a far different style from most of her CEO predecessors. She has been put in charge to become the change agent and apparently has the support of many of GM’s employees in that task.  In our previous commentary in December 2013, we called attention to the Wall Street Journal characterizing Barra as “having a reputation for speaking her mind, a trait that hasn’t always been appreciated in GM’s executive suite.”

This week, business and general media are featuring reports of GM’s latest earnings announcement. The WSJ reported that after nine months, Barra wants to switch gears towards a multi-year strategy to deliver increased revenues and profits while restoring consumer trust. She explained to a group of GM’s top 300 executives that the company must do what it takes to be the “world’s most valued automotive company”.  The going forward strategy leans heavily on reliance on planned new models expected to come to market, many of which were shepherded under the leadership of Barra when she previously led new product development. A goal is to have 47 percent of global sales to be fueled by these new models by 2019. It further includes market expansion and growth within China through investing in five additional auto assembly plants and he introduction of nine new Cadillac models in that country.

GM will further focus on the broader supply chain’s contribution to its renewed business goals.

According to a recent WSJ report, there is an internal belief that GM pays more than its competitors for materials and technology because the company bases parts purchases on unrealistically high forecasts that burden suppliers with high fixed costs when ultimate demand falls short. Our community is more blunt in such an explanation: it is lousy forecasting predicated on achieving functional stovepiped goals. The WSJ quotes some analysts as indicating that the automaker could save upwards of $1 billion a year with smarter purchasing practices, which as we know, is a typical Wall Street short-term perspective these days. Squeeze those suppliers!

GM’s existing product development chief, Mark Reuss, actually met with executives representing 700 suppliers indicating that the company is ready to share more financial risks if sales projections are high. At that same meeting, GM’s purchasing boss, Grace Lieblein indicated that the supplier base will likely need to add capacity to support growth plans. In a Detroit Free Press published report, she is quoted as stating: “we just have to be cautious and strategic about how we add that capacity and not move too fast.” Lieblein further communicated that an important strategy is convincing suppliers to locate closer to GM assembly plants to reduce transportation costs.

Obviously that’s a tall order for suppliers since transportation cost savings do not necessarily weight themselves to the benefit of the supplier. Adding production capacity to support additional volume and spreading that capacity further across the globe requires a significant financial investment. Add some history of throwing suppliers “under the bus” when quality plans go south because of component design flaws, well, you get the picture of legacy trust.

The new era of GM obviously requires what Barra has described as bold thinking and leadership. What this author was hoping to read is that goal of GM’s supply chain going forward is to support continued product innovation while controlling costs and accelerating productivity. Perhaps that will be articulated in the coming months.

It is this author’s view that such thinking can benefit by a broader and deeper perspective by GM’s executive leaders on how more modernized supply chain business practices, new product introduction (NPI) practices incorporated to supply chain impacts, more collaborative based inventory and supply chain planning practices  have led to benefits among other industries as well as other automotive OEM’s. Today’s supply chain and B2B business network technology capabilities can further link the global end-to-end supply chain with more granular levels of planning and supply chain execution synchronization.  

The business practices and enabling technology are available but it requires a good dose of change management infusion before real benefits can flow. We trust GM will hence forth nurture the leadership to set such perspectives.

Bob Ferrari

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