VW LogoOne of my favorite Demotivators (www.despair.com) – posters that mock those motivation posters a lot of companies put up on their walls to inspire their employees – shows a ship sinking with the caption “Mistakes – It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” It would be an appropriate poster for VW to post on their walls.

There’s nothing VW can do now to undo their crisis of using software to spoof pollution testing. It’s happened and they will deal with the scandal successfully or they will fail. But what could VW have done to prevent the scandal in the first place? We can use a technique I discussed previously in Tackling the Symptom, Not the Problem – the Five Whys.

We know now that the engines VW was developing were not meeting emission standards and the engineers used software to detect when emissions testing was being conducted and adjust the engine accordingly. In this I don’t blame the engineers – they are paid to come up with technical solutions to technical problems.

In drilling down we find that there are two problems presented:

  1. The technical development of the diesel engines was not meeting the emissions standards.
  2. Management was willing to accept a deceptive practice to solve problem #1.

If Problem #1 was solved, then Problem #2 wouldn’t have occurred. But because Problem #2 did occur, it tells me that management was pre-disposed to taking short cuts – ethical or otherwise. In fact, there are reports that VW didn’t use diesel technology available that would have solved Problem #1 because the management insisted on using in-house developed technology and killed the clean diesel technology.

So it seems the root cause is management – no surprise, Deming insisted that 90% of all problems are caused by management.

So how could this have been avoided? The simple answer is DON’T BE STUPID! Duh!

But the better answer is found in a post I wrote in June 2013, Winning, Failure, and the Washington Post Test where I told of a simple test of whether you should do something or not – if it showed up on the front page of the Washington Post would you look good?

Sometimes the answer is murky and that’s when you need to take additional steps. Two I wrote about are Crisis Management is Free: The Awesome Problem-Solving Tool You Already Have and You Are Only Two Minutes Away from Being a Better Crisis Manager.

Slowing down and considering what the consequences can be are critical. After all, while it may be hard work to conduct a pre-mortem in private, it’s a lot better than a post-mortem conducted in public. The term I heard was prospective hindsight – seeing ahead what you would see afterwards.

It will save you a lot of shame, ridicule and embarrassment.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.