VW, “Truth in Engineering” and the lessons for coaching?
I was reading “First-Time Managers, Don’t Do Your Team’s Work for Them“, a short piece in the online Harvard Business Review (HBR), against a background of today’s lunchtime BBC News, revealing more on the Volkswagen (VW) diesel emissions scandal, affecting millions of cars and customers in the US and Europe.
The HBR piece is about how coaching can help new managers establish boundaries within – and between – teams. And, just as importantly, how managers should consider setting limits on their own expectations of themselves as individuals: ‘Be perfect’, ‘please everyone’? Sound familiar?
Together, this started me wondering: what forces and influences were acting on those individuals involved in the VW story to shape their thinking and behaviour? What made them commit – as currently appears likely — a fraud affecting not just countless owners (the very ‘customers’ of VW), but potentially every VW employee and shareholder, too? What made them do something which, environmentally, will literally effect everyone on earth — including the perpetrators. The Guardian reports the affected VW vehicles may produce up to 40 times more toxic emissions than permitted. What would motivate a deliberate act (assuming absence of industrial espionage or malice) from within the world’s largest car maker by volume, affecting 11 million vehicles and their owners which — ultimately — was almost, surely, bound to be discovered?
The answer to these questions is unlikely to be simple, but it may involve individuals trying to ‘help’ (however distorted their thinking and however much cognitive dissonance was going on) to generate sales and ‘success’ for the organisation. It may also, and I hesitate to use the phrase, reflect on some individuals who decided to simply ‘follow orders’?
It would be trite to position ‘coaching’ in this context as a panacea or means to have avoided this issue; it’s unlikely to be as simple as that and there are clearly organisational and cultural issues involved, too. Not least, why the impressive-looking VW board didn’t know what was happening?; and if they did know what was going on, why they didn’t act sooner?
Indeed, you could argue that coaching would not have made a difference, or made it worse? If someone had decided “where they wanted to go”, “what they wanted to do” (mislead testers on the true level of emissions results in this case) a coach might just have helped them plan this better, surely?!
Yet a professional coach — by testing assumptions and asking challenging questions at the right point — can mitigate against the kind of wood-for-the-trees perspective that at, some level, appears to have happened at VW, which currently faces a potential loss of up to an astonishing $18bn in fines. Simple questions like:
“Are there any alternatives?”
“What might happen?”
“What would good look like?”
Questions that an individual might take away from a general coaching session and keep in their back pocket for future thinking. Questions which might just help avoid the kind of tunnel vision, which — for VW — seems to have led to what is known in the aviation industry as ‘controlled flight into terrain‘.
Audi, part of the VW Group, advertised for many years under the slogan: “Vorsprung durch Technik” — which loosely translates as “Advancement with Technology”. In US advertising Audi substituted a phrase in English:
“Truth in Engineering”
Clearly something has gone wrong in terms of both organisational culture and individual behaviour if “Truth in Engineering” was really VW’s goal?
Nick Wray currently drives a VW Passat…
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