Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Boss Likes Good News

I thought this viewpoint from Bob Lutz (a longtime GM executive) about the engineering culture at Volkswagen was... interesting and potentially revealing: 
Ferdinand PiĆ«ch, the immensely powerful former chief of Volkswagen's supervisory board, is more than likely the root cause of the VW diesel-emissions scandal. Whether he specifically asked for, tacitly approved, or was even aware of the company's use of software to deliberately fudge EPA emissions testing is immaterial. 
I sat next to him at an industry dinner in the Nineties, just after the fourth-generation Golf had debuted at the Frankfurt show. I told him, "I'd like to congratulate you on the new Golf. First of all, it's a nice-looking car, but God, those body fits!" 
"Ah, you like those?" 
"Yeah. I wish we could get close to that at Chrysler." 
"I'll give you the recipe. I called all the body engineers, stamping people, manufacturing, and executives into my conference room. And I said, 'I am tired of all these lousy body fits. You have six weeks to achieve world-class body fits. I have all your names. If we do not have good body fits in six weeks, I will replace all of you. Thank you for your time today.' " 
That's how you did it?" 
"Yes. And it worked."
Assuming that this story is true and that this actually is the prevailing culture at Volkswagen, it's not surprising that such a ruse was devised to keep the bosses happy (and EPA in the dark.)*

I presume Truly Wise Bosses when when the turn the screws to your employees (if you have to), knowing when to let them lead, and knowing when they may be turning to nefarious and ultimately destructive means to give you good news.

*It also reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Bill Buford's "Heat", about the famous New York City chef, Mario Batali: 
Did Mario know what the kitchen was like without him? According to Tony [CJ's note: one of his sous-chefs], "Mario knows exactly what he doesn't want to know." 
I think a lot of bosses know exactly what they don't want to know. 


  1. Reading this anecdote and the current news causes me to imagine a Trump White House.

  2. 1) While demanding the answers you want from your subordinates is likely to work, nature doesn't work for you and is therefore not required to do what you want ("reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away."). This seems like a bad thing for shareholders, although I guess they only run things when it's lower-level employees you need to hose.

    2) I never understand how someone knows what they don't want to know (it came up, I think, with Gates and Iran-Contra). They can avoid giving evidence that they know bad/illegal things are going on, but if they go on long enough and widely enough, it seems hard to claim that they didn't know what was happening and did not implicitly endorse it. If you don't regulate something externally, one has to assume that you knew what it would do - that it's internally regulated and that the regulation is OK with you. In this case, only positive proof of lack of knowledge (you asked what was going on and couldn't figure out or were lied to) would seem to be acceptable. I don't like the IRS (if you expect other people to be perfect, a 20% incorrect rate for advice is unacceptable), but this is why the rule of "ignorance is no defense" is in place. Maybe it's just a rule for peons.

  3. A professor of my acquaintance did a post-doc with an Nobel Laureate. Anyone in his group reporting a modest yield would be grilled and asked to provide the notebook, spectra, chromatograms, etc. People smart enough to get in to this institution quickly determine how to avoid this.

    1. They stayed extra hours trying to repeat the reaction to get higher yields, then figure out what went wrong? They must have gone back to the literature to do a search on some obscure journals for other approaches and tried those? They did a kinetic study to figure out the step where the low yield was coming from and adjusted the reagent to increase it, even though it took working long evenings and weekends while breathing residual solvent vapor that saps your strength and thought capacity the entire time? Is that what they did? Damn it, don't keep me in suspense man (or woman)!

    2. I had a similar experience working in a lab as an undergrad. When explaining the lack of progress in my initial, untrained attempts at using airless techniques, I mentioned that my yields did not remotely approach the 99% yields with 97% ee that he had published in Aldrich Chimica Acta for the reaction. Rather than address the obvious lack of skill/competence of a neophyte, he furiously accused me of questioning the veracity of his paper. Clearly not something my undergrad-self would not ever have considered. I quickly understood why all the post-docs always had their heads down and never spoke (no grad-students). I quit the lab the next day. His approach must have worked since a decade later he became a Nobel Laureate just like his mentor.

    3. After running the reaction again and not getting the results needed, he sat down for coffee and a bowl of applEJaCks while determining their next step. "What could I be doing wrong? Besides the one time that I EJeCted the sample from the NMR wrong, I've been held as the exemplary grad student in the department." With each bite of the applEJaCks he grew more despondent. "How is this not working better?" he angrily thought. My professor has hundreds of Tet. Lett. papers reporting similar reactions and all of them have a 99% yield. After another bite of applEJaCks, he cleaned up from his meal and went to collect his NMR sample from another run. EJeCting his sample from the machine just found him at a stage of sorrow as he finally decided to write down a 99% yield with greater than 98% ee, while making the story about solving the problem; knowing full well that no one would question his advisor as long as they were able to repeat with proper product, if not the same yields.

    4. Yup. Its due to the applEJaCks. Not me. The cereal.

    5. It does have a lot of sugar, and all that sugar can make one do crazy things.

    6. Indeed. Great example: 0:40 and beyond.


  4. NYT today:

    “This transaction is a game-changer for our industry..."- Andrew N. Liveris, Dow’s chairman and chief executive


    "Job reductions are expected to result from the merger. Dow employs 53,000, while DuPont had 63,000 employees as of the end of 2014. [...]. DuPont said 10 percent of its global work force would be affected."

    Anyone know how many scientists DuPont has? x percent of 63,000 is a big, big number....