The biggest crisis to hit the automotive world is unfolding before our eyes in real time – and Volkswagen is having to address the sorry mess of its own doing in front of a world audience. There could be no worse time to be a global player. Funnily enough, this year was the first time Volkswagen seemed like it would pip Toyota to become the world’s largest car manufacturer. That would have been good. Now it’s a task to stay anywhere near the top.
More than enough has been said about the whys and wherefores of the imbroglio. It seems almost naïve that Wolfsburg could have found itself in this mess – after all if you cannot trust the German and Japanese management structures to move according to plan, then whom can we trust? The Italians? It seems inconceivable that an active workaround found its way into the car’s software without approval from all the way up? But is this a given? Do all boards and managements know what is happening at lower levels of the hierarchy? In an organisation that spans every region of the world, is it even feasible to have a two-way flow of information that covers everything? Yes, one man took the moral responsibility and walked the plank, but how much did he actually even know about the ‘cheat’?
The question is one of trust. Do you as a leader operate with the belief that once you set a direction and spell out your objectives everyone will then follow? Do you then go beyond the scorecard and KPI measurement and get into the nitty-gritty of every process happening below you? Do you stand at the door to greet every one arriving with eyes to watch stance? Most of us don’t. As long as the end result is achieved or bettered, we are quite relaxed about how the job gets done.
But then, that is exactly how corruption grows. If some greasing of palms or gift-giving can get you a contract or clear a payment, would you acquiesce? No? Then why would you not lay down the law saying exactly what the performance envelope is from your researchers, designers, engineers and management?
The other area of trust here is in the way governments deal with industry. Government lays down the laws, communicates a roadmap and spells out punishments. In this case it also has the means to check compliance, but leaves most of the real-time modalities to the manufacturers themselves or in combination with third-party certification. That practically every third-party in every certification process on the planet (whether they are accountants, engineers, surveyors or doctors or even circulation trackers) is paid by the first-party for their services. Why are we still even faintly shocked when we discover that third-party certification is flawed? In this case, it’s easy to tick the appropriate boxes in the lab and collect your cheque, because the car helped.
The trust issue gets even bigger when you throw the dealers and customers into the pile. It begins with a dealer trusting the manufacturer about the product or service that they sell. That the car will run so many hundreds of thousands of kilometres, that the warranty will be honoured, that parts will be available and that emotional and intangible elements will be met. A large proportion of that gets transmitted through to the customers – they have to trust the dealers, the manufacturers and by extension the Government.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” On a personal level, you always know when you reach that philosophical barrier. In some of us it’s a switch – you refuse to believe that person ever again. In the rest of us the tendency is to take things on a case-by-case basis. Very few of us can just move on from that moment as if nothing has happened. Fortunately for Volkswagen, we human beings aren’t so picky when it comes to the world beyond our flawed human relationships. Whether it’s crashed planes, failed banks, food poisoning, the cigarette industry, flawed airbags and ignition switches or a polluting engine, we have all been lied to by industry through the centuries and we all keep on returning to the very same industry for our essentials. It is as if we would rather believe in the fantasy world of J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”