I looked at how Volkswagen could go so wrong the other day. There is almost always a rush to blame human error or subordinates, I said. Some of them may be genuinely criminal and deserve jail time. But the problem is more usually also systemic: management doesn't see or want to see problems coming.
Now here's a piece in Harvard Business Review on the issue. Of course, it was rogue employees, says Volkswagen management.
Testifying unhappily before America’s Congress, Volkswagen of America CEO Michael Horn adamantly and defiantly identified the true authors of his company’s disastrous “defeat device” deception: “This was not a corporate decision. No board meeting or supervisory meeting has authorized this,” Horn declared. “This was a couple of rogue software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.”
Ach, du lieber! Put aside for the moment what this testimony implies about the auto giant’s purported culture of engineering excellence. Look instead at what’s revealed about Wolfsburg’s managerial oversight: utter and abysmal failure. No wonder Chairman and CEO Martin Winterkorn had to resign. His “tone at the top” let roguery take root.
The author is an MIT expert on the software processes at issue.
Always look to the leadership. Where were Volkswagen’s code reviews? Who took pride and ownership in the code that makes Volkswagen and Audi cars run? For digitally-driven innovators, code reviews are integral to healthy software cultures and quality software development.
Good code is integral to how cars work now, he says. And to write good code the Googles and Facebooks of the world have code review systems with some form of openness, even external advice or review, so that murky code is found out.
As we learned from financial fiascoes and what will be affirmed as Volkswagen’s software saga unwinds, rogues don’t exist in spite of top management oversight, they succeed because of top management oversight.
It can be comforting , in a way, to think that problems or bad decisions occur only because of individual stupidity or bias or error or ignorance. If people, and organizations as a whole don't even consciously see many problems coming, or ignore trade-offs, it's more disturbing and harder to solve. Most information and analysis will tend to reinforce their point of view. Single-minded mania also often produces short-run financial success.
Until the darkness comes. Leaders have to be held accountable for finding their blind spots. They can't claim ignorance after the fact.