First thoughts on VW’s emmissions debacle

It is far too soon to tell exactly what went on at VW, in the wider motor industry, within the respective regulators and within governments. However, the way that the news has come out, and the financial and operational impact that it is likely to have, are enough to encourage all enterprises to revisit their risk management, governance and customer reputation management policies. Corporate scandals are not a new phenomenon, from the collapse of the Medici Bank in 1494, Warren Hastings’ alleged despotism in the British East India Company, down to the FIFA corruption allegations that broke earlier this year. Organisational scandals are as old as organisations. The bigger the organisations get, the bigger the scandals are going to be.

Normal Scandals

In 1984, Scott Perrow published his pessimistic analysis of what he saw as the inevitability of Normal Accidents in complex technologies. I am sure that there is a market for a book entitled Normal Scandals: Living with High-Risk Organisational Structures. But I don’t share Perrow’s pessimism. Life is getting safer. Let’s adopt the spirit of continual improvement to make investment safer too. That’s investment for those of us trying to accumulate a modest portfolio for retirement. Those who aspire to join the super rich will still have to take their chances.

I fully understand that organisations sometimes have to take existential risks to stay in business. The development of Rolls-Royce’s RB211 aero-engine well illustrates what happens when a manufacturer finds itself with proven technologies that are inadequately aligned with the Voice of the Customer. The market will not wait while the business catches up. There is time to develop a response but only if that solution works first time. In the case of Rolls-Royce it didn’t and insolvency followed. However, there was no alternative but to try.

What happened at VW? I just wonder whether the Iron Law of Oligarchy was at work. To imagine that a supervisory board sits around discussing the details of engine management software is naïve. In fact it was the RB211 crisis that condemned such signal failures of management to delegate. Do VW’s woes flow from a decision taken by a middle manager, or a blind eye turned, that escaped an inadequate system of governance? Perhaps a short term patch in anticipation of an ultimate solution?

Cardinal Newman’s contribution to governance theory

John Henry Newman learned about risk management the hard way. Newman was an English Anglican divine who converted to the Catholic Church in 1845. In 1850 Newman became involved in the controversy surrounding Giacinto Achilli, a priest expelled from the Catholic Church for rape and sexual assault but who was making a name from himself in England as a champion of the protestant evangelical cause. Conflict between Catholic and protestant was a significant feature of the nineteenth century English political landscape. Newman was minded to ensure that Achilli’s background was widely known. He took legal advice from counsel James Hope-Scott about the risks of a libel action from Achilli. Hope-Scott was reassuring and Newman published. The publication resulted in Newman’s prosecution and conviction for criminal libel.

Speculation about what legal advice VW have received as to their emissions strategy would be inappropriate. However, I trust that, if they imagined they were externalising any risk thereby, they checked the value of their legal advisors’ professional indemnity insurance.

Newman certainly seems to have learned his lesson and subsequently had much to teach the modern world about risk management and governance. After the Achilli trial Newman started work on his philosophical apologia, The Grammar of Assent. One argument in that book has had such an impact on modern thinking about evidence and probability that it was quoted in full by Bruno de Finetti in Volume 1 of his 1974 Theory of Probability.

Supposes a thesis (e.g. the guilt of an accused man) is supported by a great deal of circumstantial evidence of different forms, but in agreement with each other; then even if each piece of evidence is in itself insufficient to produce any strong belief, the thesis is decisively strengthened by their joint effect.

De Finetti set out the detailed mathematics and called this the Cardinal Newman principle. It is fundamental to the modern concept of borrowing strength.

The standard means of defeating governance are all well known to oligarchs, regulator capture, “stake-driving” – taking actions outside the oversight of governance that will not be undone without engaging the regulator in controversy, “whipsawing” – promising A that approval will be forthcoming from B while telling B that A has relied upon her anticipated, and surely “uncontroversial”, approval. There are plenty of others. Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York sets out the locus classicus.

Governance functions need to exploit the borrowing strength of diverse data sources to identify misreporting and misconduct. And continually improve how they do that. The answer is trenchant and candid criticism of historical data. That’s the only data you have. A rigorous system of goal deployment and mature use of process behaviour charts delivers a potent stimulus to reluctant data sharers.

Things and actions are what they are and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?

Bishop Joseph Butler



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