The Power of Framing: GM’s Cobalt and the Failure to Understand

, , , , , , , ,

by Helio Fred Garcia

Imagine that you’re an executive at a large company.

You learn that one of your products – a good revenue generator but not a franchise-defining product – has a customer convenience issue. It sometimes does things that annoy customers. In particular, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do 100 percent of the time. Several dozen customers have complained.

Given all you have on your plate, how urgent do you consider this problem? What kinds of resources do you devote to it?

Now consider a different scenario: You learn that this product has a significant safety defect. That safety defect, in turn, risk loss of life – in fact, it may already have cost some lives.

Given all you have on your plate, how urgent do you consider this problem? What kinds of resources do you devote to it?

Finally, what if the problems are one and the same? Is there a difference in your reaction to something described as a customer inconvenience compared to the same thing that’s described as a serious safety defect?

Customer Convenience v. Safety Defect

Herein lies what may finally be an explanation for the otherwise incomprehensible behavior at General Motors (GM)


The Power of Communication

Communication has power. But as with any powerful tool, if communication is not used effectively it can dissipate or cause self-inflicted harm.

That’s one of the lessons of the tragic events at GM that have just come to light this year.

I have taught elements of the GM Cobalt ignition switch crisis since it first became public back in the Spring.  And in all the discussions, my students and I keep coming back to the same questions: Why did GM not fix the problem when they had a chance?  Why did it take more than ten years?  Did they simply not care?  Did their cost/benefit analysis lead them to conclude that it was OK to keep an unsafe car on the road?  We’ve been baffled.

So I’ve waited with anticipation for the formal report conducted by GM’s independent law firm. That report is now out, and it is stunning. Not just for its tale of incompetence and neglect. But also for providing an intriguing clue about how this baffling series of mis-steps could have happened in the first place.

I am indebted to author and Forbes columnist Carmine Gallo for first calling attention to what I cover below. Gallo’s June 9 post focused on how two words explain the massive failures at GM and how two different words could have prevented the fiasco in the first place. It’s worth reading.

The Valukas Report

The report, prepared by former US Attorney Anton R. Valukas, the chairman of the law firm Jenner & Block, was released on May 29. In the course of 315 pages it lays out the causes and tragic consequences of GM’s failures.

Anton Valukas

Anton Valukas

Three in particular caught my eye.

  1. GM engineers failed to name the problem accurately.
  2. That’s because the engineers didn’t understand how the cars worked (!?)
  3. The engineers mis-framed the crisis and therefore it wasn’t taken seriously for more than 11 years.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. GM engineers failed to name the problem accurately.

When the Cobalt’s ignition system switched from Run to Off or Accessory, it also turned off the electrical system.

But the engineers described it as a “moving stall” and didn’t seem to understand that the lack of electrical power meant that airbags wouldn’t deploy, with potentially catastrophic effects. So they told the media and others that a moving stall did not create a safety hazard.

From the Report:

“[T]hose individuals tasked with fixing the problem – sophisticated engineers with responsibility to provide consumers with safe and reliable automobiles – did not understand one of the most fundamental consequences of the switch failing and the car stalling: the airbags would not deploy. The failure of the switch meant that drivers were without airbag protection at the time they needed it most. This failure, combined with others documented below, led to devastating consequences: GM has identified at least 54 frontal-impact crashes, involving the deaths of more than a dozen individuals, in which the airbags did not deploy as a possible result of the faulty ignition switch.”

Chevrolet Cobalt

Chevrolet Cobalt

2. That’s because the engineers didn’t understand how the cars worked (!?)

From the Report:

“A critical factor in GM personnel’s initial delay in fixing the switch was their failure to understand, quite simply, how the car was built. GM had specifically designed the airbag system not to deploy, in most circumstances, in the event that the ignition switch was turned to Off or Accessory, a deliberate and sensible decision made to prevent passengers from being injured by airbags in parked cars.

In 2004, however, GM engineers, faced with a multitude of reports of moving stalls caused by the ignition switch, concluded that moving stalls were not safety issues because drivers could still maneuver the cars; they completely failed to understand that the movement of the switch out of the Run position meant the driver and passengers would no longer have the protection of the airbags.”

3. The engineers mis-framed the crisis and therefore it wasn’t taken seriously for more than 11 years. To me this is the most interesting.

From the Report:

“GM personnel viewed the switch problem as a “customer convenience” issue – something annoying but not particularly problematic – as opposed to the safety defect it was.

Once so defined, the switch problem received less attention, and efforts to fix it were impacted by cost considerations that would have been in immaterial had the problem been properly categorized in the first instance.”

It isn’t that GM didn’t care about safety. It did. The Report makes clear that when presented with safety problems GM acted responsibly.

From the Report:

“Indeed, in this same decade, GM issued hundreds of recalls at great expense (including at times when its financial condition was precarious) because in the great majority of instances, it correctly determined or agreed that the issues that came to its attention implicated safety and demanded prompt action. But in the case of the Cobalt, it did not do so.”

Why not? According to the Report, in 2005 a number of committees recommended a range of solutions, but they were rejected because they would be too costly. The report makes clear that such cost considerations would not have been in play if they had understood the connection between the stalls and the disabling of airbags – in other words, if they had understood the safety hazard.

Cobalt Ignition and Switch Assembly

Cobalt Ignition and Switch Assembly


Why didn’t GM recall Cobalt? The initial framing of the problem as a “customer convenience” problem meant it wasn’t seen as a safety concern, and therefore got a back burner.

From the Report:

“From 2004 to 2006, not one of the committees considering a fix for the switch – filled with engineers and business people whose job was to understand how GM’s cars were built and how different systems of the car interact – ever reclassified the problem from one of customer convenience to one of safety or demonstrated any sense of urgency in their efforts to fix the switch. GM’s Product Investigations group, charged with identifying and remedying safety issues, made the same mistake; it opened and closed an investigation in 2005 in the span of a month, finding no safety issue to be remedied.”

The tragedy is that the signs of a serious safety issue were there to be seen. But in the “customer convenience” frame GM engineers didn’t see it. It took people outside of GM who had not been influenced by the “customer convenience” frame to grasp the real problem.

From the Report:

“As the early committees failed to fix the problem, accidents and fatalities in which airbags did not deploy began coming to GM personnel’s attention, including GM’s in-house counsel and the engineers who worked with them. Those outside GM, including, in 2007, a trooper from the Wisconsin Safety Patrol and a research team from Indiana University, figured out the connection between the switch and the airbag non-deployment. Yet, GM personnel did not.”

The Power of Framing

According to the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, frames are mental structures triggered by language.

George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist, UCal Berkeley

George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist, UCal Berkeley

When a frame is triggered, an entire worldview is triggered, and that determines the meaning of what comes next. When the frame is triggered, we tend to focus what’s within the frame, and to ignore what’s outside the frame.

And when we say something “makes sense,” we mean that something is consistent with the frame.

So when the GM engineers referred initially to a “moving stall” and called it a “customer convenience” problem, that frame determined the meaning of what followed. As a result there was no sense of urgency, so cost and other tasks took priority.

But what if the original engineers had framed the problem differently: if they had called the ignition switch problem a “safety defect”?  The reaction could have been completely different.

Urgency makes sense when grappling with a safety defect, but not necessarily when facing a customer convenience issue. Conversely, cost becomes a challenge for a customer convenience issue, but not at all when grappling with a safety defect.

Of course, there were many other challenges at GM besides this basic failure of understanding. There was compartmentalization, turf, and a culture that included the “GM Nod,” defined in the Report as “when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room and does nothing.”  There was plenty of incompetence and indifference.

Lessons for Leaders and Communicators

But at one level the Report serves as a teachable moment:

1.  How you name the problem goes a long way toward how you fix the problem.

2. Framing matters.  The frame defines what makes sense and what is possible.

3. Situational awareness isn’t just about facts; it’s about understanding significance — and that comes from frames.


Your comments welcome,



0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply