On Jan. 21, 1988, a General Motors executive named Elmer Johnson wrote a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.”
On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant, wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed, especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back at the public trough again and again.”
These two memos, written by men devoted to the company, get to the heart of G.M.’s problems. Bureaucratic restructuring won’t fix the company. Clever financing schemes won’t fix the company. G.M.’s core problem is its corporate and workplace culture ”” the unquantifiable but essential attitudes, mind-sets and relationship patterns that are passed down, year after year.