If there’s one thing I feel like I’m getting more successful at, it’s failing. Which makes sense, since I get so much practice at it. Failing is also the key thing that Volkswagen, ironically, failed to embrace, and that’s a core reason why the company is where it is today. VW is enduring this colossal failure because its culture didn’t let employees fail enough before.
Earlier today, we wrote about VW’s press conference where CEO Matthias Müller and Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch admitted that the company’s corporate culture “tolerated breaches of rules” in some areas, and that engineers likely cheated because they were unable meet the U.S. tough diesel emissions requirements.
As we wrote: “The new direction should make its employees understand that mistakes are acceptable from now on, as long as they find a good solution as a team to solve the problem. Without cheating, that is.”
Before, they weren’t allowed to fail. Failure was not tolerated in the Volkswagen Group’s corporate culture. Longtime automotive exec Bob Lutz recently recounted how the constant threat of termination from men like ousted impresario Ferdinand Piëch spurred engineers in the 1990s to get Golf body fits up to snuff:
That’s the way he ran everything. It’s what I call a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation. He just says, “You will sell diesels in the U.S., and you will not fail. Do it, or I’ll find somebody who will.” The guy was absolutely brutal.
I imagine that at some point, the VW engineering team said to Piëch, “We don’t know how to pass the emissions test with the hardware we have.” The reply, in that culture, most likely was, “You will pass! I demand it! Or I’ll find someone who can do it!”
This is kind of a staggering statement, the more you think about it.
The very idea of not being ‘allowed’ to make mistakes is absurd, and any corporate (or personal) culture that incorporates this as a fundamental idea is doomed. Absolutely, unquestionably doomed. It’s the same reason that I hate the over-used quote “Failure is not an option,” because failure is always an option.
Hell, most of the time, failure is the most likely option for any given endeavor we undertake. You can have a failure-adverse culture all you want, you can ban the making of mistakes, you can instill a corporate culture that incompetence is the absolute worst sin—and failure will sit, there, staring at you, radiating the purest form of Don’t Give A Fuck you’ve ever encountered.
Just like how all systems eventually tend toward entropy, failure is always around, part of the air that surrounds any project we may undertake. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
Of course, we all want to be successful. Volkswagen wanted to make diesel engines that met U.S, emission standards and their own standards of performance and economy. It couldn’t.
If VW had a corporate culture that embraced failure rather than declaring it verboten, engineers would have been able to throw up their hands and admit they’d been beaten. That admission of failure would have been wonderful. If VW really embraced failures, that failure would have become an invitation to really get in there and examine why they failed. If we take the disgrace away from failure, then every failure becomes a chance to learn more.
I know that’s a cliché. But fuck it, it’s true. This is how you learn: you try, you fuck up, you scrutinize the fuck up, you try again.
Not accepting failure means giving up exploring, it means ignoring reality and starting down a path of delusion that ends up with your CEO giving a painful press conference. What if VW came to the conclusion that, no it can’t get to where it wants to be with the TDI engines?
Continued research, sure. But maybe failure would have pushed the company into other directions — maybe some other development that could get them where it wanted to be? Maybe engineers would re-evaluate their old goals and realize those goals weren’t as important as they thought, and perhaps a more compelling car than the competition could be created other ways, through styling, utility, handling, comfort, price, whatever?
Not letting engineers have a chance to admit failure is not a way to force a higher standard of work; it’s a way to stifle innovation.
In another article, I attributed VW’s issues more to a certain sort of technical arrogance. In hindsight, I failed there, too. Arrogance isn’t accurate for the true VW culture. What really doomed them is fear, this fear of failing.
It’s not like I don’t understand why VW fears failure; nobody likes to fail. Especially when jobs and profits are on the line. It’s terrifying. Every time I fail, I’m wracked with the insecurity that maybe, just maybe, all the things I think I do well are illusions. Maybe I really do genuinely suck at all these things I pretend to do well.
I think Volkswagen feels a corporate-level version of this, primarily because it has been through this before. Volkswagen almost died because it was afraid to fail, back in the 1970s.
The era when the Volkswagens I truly love were made was also the era when VW was the most failure-averse. The company had one basic technical formula—backbone chassis, rear-mounted air-cooled engine—and because that formula worked so well for the Beetle, the company used it for everything.
VW made sedans, wagons, sporty cars, vans, buses, trucks, postal vehicles, amphibious cars, off-roaders, family cars, everything using this one basic formula. Compare them to other companies of the era, like Renault or Fiat that were making front/rear, front/front, and rear/rear cars all at the same time and you’ll see how amazingly conservative the company was were with its engineering.
VW had a formula that worked, and fear of trying something else and failing kept them from trying anything else until it almost killed them when the first wave of Japanese imports came in force in the late 1970s. It was only the transverse/water-cooled adrenaline-to-the-heart injection from NSU/Audi that saved them at the last minute.
Volkswagen changed since then. It has unquestionably become a technical innovator. But it corrected the wrong part of the problem. The problem wasn’t their unwillingness to technically innovate, their problem was the willingness to deal with the possible failure that could come from that.
So, it went from a risk-averse and failure-averse company (doomed, but slowly and steadily doomed) to a risk-willing and failure-averse company (doomed, but doomed dramatically, as we see today.) That’s not fixing the problem.
Volkswagen’s still climbing out of this mess, and if what the company is saying now is true, it could pull through okay, and become a better company as a result. For those of us not on the board of VW, though, there’s lots to take away here: let yourself fail.
I mean it. I know way too many smart, talented people who haven’t done shit with their lives because they’re afraid of failing. We live in an era where all of our actions, good and bad, are broadcast out for all to see. When we fail now, we often do so publicly. Hell, I did yesterday when I screwed up the math in an article I wrote, and was called out on it almost immediately.
I failed, and everyone saw it. But that’s okay. I fixed it, and I doubt I’ll make that same mistake again. That’s a good thing, because I have so many other new mistakes yet to come.
Fail. Fuck up. Crash. Burn. Do it, do it all, do it gleefully, do it messily, just make sure to dig through that wreckage when you climb out. Failing at something means you actually did something, and that’s what matters.
Right now, the best car company to learn from is the one in the biggest mess, and I encourage everyone out there to get messy as well.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.