At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, hospitals ran out of intensive care ventilators needed by thousands of Covid-19 patients. Ventilator manufacturers couldn’t do more fast enough. Hospitals had to weigh which patients would get the life-saving equipment, which “forced some states to consider imposing ‘crisis standards of care,'” rationing of medical care, according to NPR at the time.
In a race against the virus, General Motors partnered with Ventec Life Systems to build ventilators and help save lives, to retrofit factories in Indiana on a dime. Ultimately, GM and Ventec produced 30,000 ventilators between March 20, 2020 and August 30Th, 2020, produces “one ventilator approximately every seven minutes,” with a $490 million contract from the Department of Health and Human Services under the Defense Production Act. GM also produced tens of thousands of surgical masks.
How did they do it?
Telva McGruder, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at General Motors and a 28-year veteran of GM, “led facilities engineering and facility management for North America. . . . We had shut down our facilities. We were working on developing protocols for how we can get our team members back to work safely,” she recently explained on my Electric Ladies Podcast. “And then I went into a meeting with our manufacturing management and they said our country has a need for ventilators and we’re going to try to how we can help. And with that, we were off to the races and we started looking at options for facilities that we could use to do that.”
Having never produced anything remotely resembling fans before, it was all hands on deck. “We had people working weekends going in, scouting premises, seeing what was possible, what wasn’t possible, in spaces that were available to change.” Bringing engineering, safety, manufacturing and finance teams “together to figure out what we can do and how quickly, who can we partner with to help us with the technical know-how… from across the spectrum of the GM team to make this happen.”
The questions they had to ask included some you might expect and some you might not. McGruder said they asked, “What has to be true for us to do this? And, number two, how can we use the skills we have as a manufacturing company that knows how to design efficient processes, that knows how to quickly can make continuous improvement? How can we use those skills here?” That included who to work with to quickly source missing skills and materials. Lives were at stake every moment. “It was amazing how people put down what they were working on…so they could go and help,” she said .
How “moving at ventilator speed” changed General Motors—and helped bring the Hummer EV to life
The process of what McGruder calls “moving at ventilator speed” has changed GM’s culture and processes, along with their commitment to making only electric vehicles. It also made “adaptability” a priority when recruiting talent.
At a meeting with the Automotive Press Association of Detroit in December 2021, GM CEO Mary Barra said “Doing the ventilator project was kind of a game changer from a General Motors perspective, from a culture change perspective,” and it has accelerated how they’re rolling out electric and other vehicles to market, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Echoing and expanding on that sentiment, McGruder said, “It was really at the core of a lot of things we’ve done since then.” Now they ask, for example, “What can we do for ourselves to remove barriers to innovation, similar to what we did with ventilators?”
She gave an example where they needed to put an elevator in an odd spot in their building and do it over the weekend, “so we could build the production line in a place that was best suited for it.” After learning how to turn on a dime during the pandemic, she said, “we could do it. We could make a decision. We could pull in the right resources, both materials and people that we needed to do something that we never would have done under normal circumstances, and do it well and safely.”
As a result of “moving at ventilator speed,” GM—their people and systems—learned how to remove barriers and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise when innovating, especially when you need speed. This has helped them in their transition to electric vehicles as well.
“You’ve seen that with the Hummer EV that was just released,” McGruder said. “The Hummer EV was an example of one of the things we’ve done since the ventilator project that was a showcase of the talent that we have in our typical space.”
Leverage conflict to fuel new solutions faster
People who feel safe share their ideas more easily and more often, which makes it easier to find the best way forward and faster. “Whether you work in a manufacturing plant or you work in engineering, or you work in finance, whether you work hourly, whether you have a salary, you’re here for a reason and your voice matters.”
McGruder attributed the building of this culture in part to Mary Barra’s leadership, saying, “she has created for us, a way of talking to each other. It’s different than what we had before.” McGruder clarified that “it doesn’t mean we skip the daisies and always get along and never disagree with each other and have perfect compromises.”
That means, she added, that “these disagreements are the fuel for the future. Where someone speaks up and they say, ‘I’m not sure if that’s right.’ And the other person says, ‘help me understand why you’re saying that.’ And that’s how conflict can fuel innovation, and conflict can fuel solutions that really aren’t on the table before the conflict happens.”
Innovations such as the Hummer EV.
Listen to the full interview with Telva McGruder on the Electric Ladies Podcast here.