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The 69 Words GM Employees Can Never Say 373

bizwriter (1064470) writes "General Motors put together its take on a George Carlin list of words you can't say. Engineering employees were shown 69 words and phrases that were not to be used in emails, presentations, or memos. They include: defect, defective, safety, safety related, dangerous, bad, and critical. You know, words that the average person, in the context of the millions of cars that GM has recalled, might understand as indicative of underlying problems at the company. Oh, terribly sorry, 'problem' was on the list as well."
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The 69 Words GM Employees Can Never Say

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  • by pefisher ( 774697 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:39AM (#47046173)
    Sometimes it seems that engineers have the lowest power to education ratio of any profession in the US. Lawyers and bean counters seem to spend their days making sure that any good that might be done by engineers is preemptively neutralized.
  • by NatasRevol ( 731260 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @11:02AM (#47046407) Journal

    That's about the best MBA-speak I've ever seen.

  • by bigpat ( 158134 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @11:08AM (#47046467)

    Exactly. The Thiokol engineers knew that the air temperature at the launch pad was below the lower range operating temperature of the O Rings which was 40 degrees (or 50 degrees for the system as a whole). The O rings themselves were certified down to 40 degrees but the engineers were bullied by management who wanted proof that the system would fail rather than the other way around and then when the engineers couldn't prove that it would fail they were overruled. I think the comments that it would be "away from goodness" was just a really impotent way of saying something like "there was a potentially increased risk that the rocket would explode that can not be quantified because of lack of data", but saying the rocket might explode in such blunt language was probably a quick ticket to being fired shortly afterwards and the engineers probably knew that.

    Language matters and the fact that GM was more worried about getting sued than about engineers accurately conveying concerns over safety is damning. GM is supposedly a new company after bankruptcy. Is it?

  • by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @12:56PM (#47047691)

    I prefer companies that are open about their problems than companies that try to hide problems with "disguised words".

    Easy to say when you are not the one at the pointy end of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit.

    GM completely deserves this lawsuit, they brought it on themselves. They saw problems, and they decided to ignore them. It's not really the engineer's fault for calling a problem a problem, right? That would be like a programmer not being allowed to refer to bugs as bugs. I once worked with a programmer who never had any bugs, his programs simply had "anomalies" that he could neither figure out the cause of nor fix. He didn't last very long.

    It's the classic fomula - GM can either pay for the recall, or pay individual settlements as they come in. If the cost of the recall is expected to be higher, than they don't do the recall. They gambled on that and lost, even though lives were at stake they decided to not do the recall until the pressure was on them. Now they are on the hook for all of the lives lost when they could have informed the public and recalled the cars. Some policy of not using words like "problem" is just a way for them to try and weasel out of their liability (and it is their liability).

  • Re:Note to myself: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by R3d M3rcury ( 871886 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @01:06PM (#47047815) Journal

    Actually, Apple has a set of forbidden words [appleinsider.com]. Macs don't crash or hang, they "unexpectedly quit" or "stop responding." Things are not "supported", they are "compatible." However nothing is incompatible--they just don't work with Macs.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @01:32PM (#47048093)

    This is +5 insightful?

    Easy to say when you are not the one at the pointy end of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit.

    Yeah, the lawsuit makes it even easier. But as a potential customer I too prefer companies that don't feel the need to censor their own employees from talking about the products they make.

    Let me make that clear: A healthy company that makes good products should be confidant that their employees can bitch and moan about whatever failings they can find with the product and still know that the product is well made, or at least that the problems have been dealt with correctly.

    If the public comments of the employee are brought up in court, the company should be able to justify those comments:
    "Yes your honor, Mr. Bob called the transmission of leaky cock-sucking sonnovabitch, and that falls in line with our public announcement on April 3rd about the a potential recall and memos to our dealers. There are problems and we dealt with them"

    As much as I'd like to see engineers speaking freely about problems, the consequences of doing so can be catastrophic when they don't know what they are doing. And I don't know too many engineers who are up to date on their product liability law.

    They're the engineer working on the problem, they are THEE expert on the subject. The company is liable for problems with the product. Not just problems that are found and proven in court, they are liable for ALL problems. The fact that the engineer might show where those problems are just brings such things to light. If you're operating with the presumption that a lot of shit and crap product will simply never be discovered, then you're running a scam and lying to your customers.

    Fact is that NO lawyer worth his retainer would agree with you.

    A lawyer wouldn't agree that companies trying to cover up their failings are shit? What?
    I think you're trying to say that no lawyer would want engineers saying anything to anybody. That makes sense as it makes their job easier. If a lawyer ran the business, all communication would go through the legal department. But it does nothing to give me faith in the output of a company. Indeed, the deeper the lawyers have their hooks into a company, the less I trust said company.

    There are VERY good reasons why companies tend to only let a few, carefully selected people who know what they are doing speak for the company.

    You're right, but only from the perspective of the quarterly profits and legal fees. And that dominates our corporate culture. And so every company has an iron curtain between the makers and the users.

    There are also very good reasons to let the engineers speak freely. It makes for a better product when the product managers know that anything they try and rush out the door will quickly come to light and reflect poorly on them. It lets the engineers have a bit more pride in what they do. It let's engineers make the thing that customers want. And it would make customers have more faith in the product and they'd BUY MORE. Unless, of course, the product is shit.

  • Re:Note to myself: (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @04:02PM (#47049941)

    Sure, "cataclysmic" doesn't belong in an engineering email, but "always", "never", "critical", "serious", "safety", "safety-related", "dangerous" and (best of all, IMO) "problem"? That isn't engineers avoiding hyperbole, that's lawyers avoiding the truth.

    While I agree with your overall sentiment; "always" and "never" are terms engineers should not use since they generally are not true. They imply a certainty that usually does not exist yet can be used in a court as proof of a problem. For example, a number years ago I worked on a project that had a set of technical specifications that must be met in order to certify the design. In it, the engineers used absolute statements that implied certain equipment would "always" function or "never"be unavailable; conditions that one could not assure with 100% certainty. As a result, has we submitted the specifications as written we would never have been able to certify the design since you could find cases where certain equipment would fail or be unavailable. Even though those cases did not impact safety we technically could not meet the specifications and those legally could not operate. The engineers answer was "of course it's not 100% but who would expect it to be?" and our answer was "the lawyer for those opposed to our plant" since we said it would be and now can't assure that. Unfortunately, what a word means to an engineer is often very different to what how it may be interpreted in a court of law.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.