GM Goes Fast

March 1, 2004
Two words run together tell the story of GM: GoFast. Hoping to stop sluggish decision-making and infuse speed and a sense of urgency into its global workforce of nearly 350,000, General Motors Corp. came up with the slogan four years ago. At the time, the global automotive powerhouse was in a downward spiral and steadily losing market share to fiercely competitive Japanese, German and Korean auto manufacturers. Top leadership at GM knew that something had to be done to shake things up. GoFast, with human resources managers in the vanguard, would be the name of the program that would lead the charge. Today, 7,000 GoFast workshops later, the term is part of GM’s culture, shorthand for ending cumbersome bureaucratic process by dealing with a problem immediately. "Just say ‘GoFast’ and everyone knows what you mean," says Kathleen Barclay, vice president of global human resources.

    GM wins Workforce Management’s Optimas Award for general excellence for turning its workforce managers into strategic partners. The company has allowed workforce management to go beyond its traditional supporting role to help reshape corporate behavior with innovative ideas and technology. In addition to the GoFast workshops, salaried GM workers are given individual responsibility to contribute to corporate business results in an initiative called the Performance Management Process. The PMP program establishes individual business objectives for salaried employees that must be linked to the worker’s unit and, in turn, to the company’s overall goals. Today, 80 percent of GM’s executives strongly agree that they are personally being held accountable for business results, compared to only 50 percent a few years ago, according to an in-house survey. Some of the dollar payoffs have been equally dramatic. GM increased its market share in 2002 for the second consecutive year--the first time that has happened in 26 years, says company spokesman Robert Minton. GoFast workshops produced documented savings of more than $500 million. Technology innovations are also part of the cost-cutting. Company executives found that if they trained local dealers by using satellite feeds to monitors set up in service bays, rather than using classrooms, they could reduce training costs from $89 per student hour to $38. That change so far has saved GM $50 million.

    Now that the old decentralized setup has been replaced by a new more centralized system of management, talent is rising to the top in previously unknown ways. There has been an 80 percent increase in the number of women executives at GM, with a 180 percent increase in the number of women in the top 450 positions in the company.

    The reorganization that produced those results continues, with human resources managers operating as chief agents of the corporate overhaul. GM management concedes that its decision-making was slow, lumbering and bureaucratic. Among the chief problems feeding the poor business results were highly decentralized, competitive business units. Barriers had been set up between the corporate fiefdoms. Communication was poor. GM’s chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner, wanted to see the internal barriers torn down and the company moving forward with one mind toward common goals. And he wanted the entire corporation to be infused with what he called "a sense of urgency." The challenge was daunting. It’s one thing getting everyone in the Detroit headquarters acting as one company. But would it also work at GM’s Daewoo operation in South Korea?

   "In my mind, HR is paramount to our reorganization effort," Wagoner says. Barclay and her team began by taking a look at the way human resources itself was performing. "HR had traditionally been positioned in such a way that it was spending a lot of time on transactional and administrative activities," Barclay says. "We really needed to have a fundamental transformation of what human resources meant to the company as a whole." Barclay and her team surveyed top GM executives in manufacturing, engineering, vehicle sales and other areas of the company, asking how human resources could add value and help drive change. The effort resulted in a strategic framework developed in 2001 that is still used today. It involves retraining human resources managers to think globally, learn to manage change, develop business acumen and forge relationships with other GM workers. Then came programs like GoFast and PMP.

    At first, resistance to GoFast in executive ranks was "tremendous," Barclay says. "They didn’t want to do it." One of the problems that everyone identified was that there were too many meetings. Now, here were even more meetings. But these were workshop sessions designed specifically to eliminate meetings by bringing key players from different departments together in one room to deal with a particular problem. Simplified, GoFast works this way: once a problem has been identified, then executives and other salaried employees responsible are brought together for a one-day session. The process might involve 6 to 20 key players. A decision to fix the problem is made on the spot.

    Helen Elliott, GM’s manager for human resource development in Europe, says she sees a huge change. For the first time, GM has standard training programs in every country and company facility, a sharp contrast to the days when training programs varied widely from plant to plant and from country to country.

    When GM was considering the acquisition of Korean auto manufacturer Daewoo, human resources stepped in and helped smooth the cultural transition. The new company is "not the old Daewoo and not a GM clone. GM Daewoo is a merger of cultures, the best of both worlds," says Nick Reilly, GM Daewoo’s president and CEO.

    Efforts to change the GM culture are ongoing. "Human resources has a big role to play in making the company behave differently, and leveraging the strengths of the company and helping the company change its speed to go faster in decision-making," Barclay says. "We have company-wide objectives around the world. We have everyone driving toward the same objectives." GoFast.

Workforce Management, March 2004, pp. 36-38 -- Subscribe Now!