What Have We Actually Learned From The Volkswagen Scandal?

There is no question that the recent discovery of Volkswagen’s widespread and sustained subversion of accurate emissions testing on their diesel cars qualifies it in spades as the ‘scandal du jour’.

Since the scandal’s disclosure, I have been honored to have been asked repeatedly to weigh in with my thoughts about it but have been consistently stymied by one, oft-repeated question: “What is the new, big lesson we can learn from this?”

My answer to you is the same as I have given to all of the others.

“What big, new ethics, compliance, or leadership lesson have we learned from the Volkswagen scandal?”

None. Zero. Zip. Exactly and precisely nothing.

Now, obviously the facts are still emerging at this point and will continue to for some time to come. However, given what we’ve heard to this point, the entire scandal seems to be an almost laughably textbook case of predictable ethical and legal shortcomings and misdeeds. In other words. not a single new idea I can see.

Here, in a nutshell, is the trail of the tale…

First – someone(s) in a position of authority – in this case the CEO and possibly the board – made it clear that they wanted the numbers to show a specific thing. (In this case, they wanted the numbers to show that Volkswagen was the dominant player in selling diesel cars but it could have been any number representing any thing and the same ethical and legal disaster would have followed.)

Then – decisions started to be made to assure that the desired numbers came up as required.

Then – once those decisions started to be made, the deceit was quickly and, I’ll guess, easily able to take on a life of its own.

It’s all pretty simple, really, an entirely not new.

We all do what is reinforced. We just do. We all just do.

Whether it’s how many diesel cars are sold, how quickly patients on a waiting list are seen, or how many mortgages can be written this quarter; we find a way to make it happen or we leave by our own hand or someone else’.

Fortunately, the answer is equally easy – at least in concept.

If your goal is to assure ethics, compliance, and accountability, you need to focus your culture on the following:

The quality of whatever service or product you provide is more important than some production number.

Everyone needs to be not only allowed but encouraged to speak up if they see something happening that even appears to risk quality or legality getting subverted for the sake of the numbers.

See – that wasn’t so hard, was it?

New? Certainly not.

Bold? One hopefully wouldn’t think so.

But, if VW had actually applied those two simple ideas, they’d likely not currently be looking at potentially catastrophic hits to both their reputation and their bottom line. Some folks are predicting multiple billions in fines and we’ve only just begun.

Soooo…

Looking for some new, bold ethics, compliance, or leadership lesson from the Volkswagen scandal? If you can find one, you’re ahead of me. This seems, at least from what we know so far, to be a textbook case of misplaced priorities in the driver’s seat – so to speak – rather than ethics and compliance being there.

Soooo…

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for some solid lessons from this to use in your own business, quit trying to find something new here; there are plenty of existing models for what you need to be – or need not to be – doing.

1. Whether your leadership or authority is over your work group, your department, your division, your entire company, or simply over yourself, think long and hard about what are the values you really want to be reinforcing because that’s what you are going to produce
.

To be clear, this isn’t some hairy-fairy idea about manifesting success. It’s psychology 101. No matter what we say our values are, what we reinforce in ourselves and others is what we really want to have happen. That, in turn, shapes all outcomes.

2. Want to prevent ethical and legal mayhem? Focus on quality and not the numbers. Then assure that everyone in the organization can and should and will speak up if they see decisions made that are either unethical, illegal, or simply contrary to creating the quality of product or service you have promised to whomever you have promised them.

(And, is it really that radical an idea to say that, if you’re truly providing a high quality good or service at an appropriate price point, the numbers will, in fact, grow substantially?)

Want help in putting these ideas into practice? Please ask. That’s exactly what I help individuals and organizations do.

2 Comments

  • Panda 2 says:

    If you read he actual research report by the university team, it is not nearly so dramatics or cloak and dagger as the news reports and press releases suggest.

    The emissions are out of compliance in specific altitude and acceleration conditions in the road tests.

    This is clearly a political broadside to start negotiations. It is likely the cars are out of compliance in real world driving. why? Because most vehicles are out of compliance with the EPA lab based tests under certain real world conditions

    I used to work on similar regulations for fuel economy and most people don’t know that the lab tests do not replicate real world driving

    And unless I was reading the wrong source material, only a few cars were actually tested by the researchers

    • cbauer says:

      Thanks for your comments which are, no doubt, more on the money than not.

      However, my thought is that the amount of ‘cloak and dagger-ness may be irrelevant here. As long as there is willful misrepresentation of data, there’s a problem ethically. The fact that others may do the same or that the tests aren’t always accurate doesn’t really wash, it seems to me, since:

      1. Others’ misdeeds are never permission for our own. and
      2. If there are testing issues to be addressed, that needs to be a visible/audible part of full disclosure to buyers, regardless of the product being sold.

      Of course, regardless of our respective readings of this situation, it will be interesting to see how this case – and, I’m guessing, others like it in the future – play out as more of the facts come to light.

      Thanks again for your comments!

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