How GM gets its employees to row the boat together

When General Motors executive vice president of global manufacturing Jim DeLuca spoke at the GreenBiz Forum 2015 main stage in Phoenix, he didn't come to talk about the Volt, Spark, or Bolt. Instead, he came to tell the audience how GM is working on sustainability in its manufacturing operations for all its vehicles.

Talking with GreenBiz's Joel Makower, DeLuca said that GM's strategy is top-down, focusing on making sure every worker in the company is engaged.

"Sustainability has to start at the top of the organization, so the board, the CEO, the executive leadership team needs to define it as a priority," DeLuca said.

"Our customers care about more than just the cars. They care about how we produce them, they care about what they're made of and they care about how we interface with the environment."

To become more sustainable, GM had to create a global playbook for all of its operations to use. Every plant has a "scorecard" which grades a number of factors, including water use, waste and energy use.

DeLuca gave examples of efficiency improvements that plants implemented to improve those scores. In one example, he outlined how a section of a plant run by robots will operate with the lights turned off. If there's a fault, lights come on so workers can fix the problem. Once the workers are clear, the lights are turned off again.

These measures, DeLuca said, weren't born out of a environmentalist mindset, however.

"When we talk about the sustainability journey and why we do it, we don't say we do it because it's the right thing to do," he said. "We say we do it because it impacts top-line growth, it impacts bottom-line results and it impacts risk. We think it's very important for those reasons."

DeLuca also focused on employee engagement as being critical to success, and actually will reward employees who come up with cost-saving ideas with amounts as high as $20,000.

When Makower asked how GM gets change to percolate through the "frozen tundra" of middle management, DeLuca said that it wasn't an issue at GM.

"As much time as I spend in the plants and with our people at every level of our organization, I don't see the frozen middle," DeLuca said. "I think it's the result of engagement at every level of the organization. I know it's a challenge for everybody."

"How do you get 190,000 people rowing the boat together? It is a challenge; it remains a challenge for us. At the end of the day, when you can get them to do that, we have no idea how good we can be."