The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the engine emission crisis at Volkswagon (VW). Senior executives of VW acknowledged that their firm had a “culture of tolerance for rule breaking” that lead to this “chain of mistakes”. Although the article did not name exactly who ordered their engineers to install the software to fool the tests, the article did state that it found no evidence that “VW executive or supervisory Boards were involved in the fraud”.

Yeh. Heard that one before. After British Petroleum (BP) had the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, a top writer from Fortune magazine stated that BP’s long time focus on cost cutting versus safety goes back directly to the Board of Directors. The Gulf spill was proceeded by several major safety events including a huge explosion in Texas that killed a dozen workers. All organizations look for guidance or direction from the top and a Board is the ultimate top. It appears that maximizing profits through cost cutting was a top priority over safety for BP and its Board.

At my old firm, USG Corporation, every meeting, even the Board meetings, started with a review of safety. This goes back to when USG started as a gypsum mining firm. Major accidents, especially deaths, are reviewed in often grisly details. Senior people, including myself, would attend safety dinners when a plant reached an accident free milestone. Safety was a core value at USG Corporation.

Sadly in most of these disasters like BP and VW often a few, token senior people are fired but with huge severance packages. But a lot of staff or line engineers at these firms lose their job and often their livelihoods because of their presumed role.

At VW, the Board and the senior executives looked the other way or showed a tolerance for rule breaking or it would not have occurred. And  German car companies are known for their excellence in their engineering and engines. That makes this all the more unbelievable to me.

In my view, senior executives and Board members must be held to higher standards than they are and at times, they need to bear the blame and responsibility for not focusing on what is right.¬† Read the rest of this entry »