The Iron Law at Volkswagen

So Michael Horn, VW’s US CEO has made a “sincere apology” for what went on at VW.

And like so many “sincere apologies” he blamed somebody else. “My understanding is that it was a couple of software engineers who put these in.”

As an old automotive hand I have always been very proud of the industry. I have held it up as a model of efficiency, aesthetic aspiration, ambition, enlightenment and probity. My wife will tell you how many times I have responded to tales of workplace chaos with “It couldn’t happen in a car plant”. Fortunately we don’t own a VW but I still feel betrayed by this. Here’s why.

A known risk

Everybody knew from the infancy of emissions testing, which came along at about the same time as the adoption of engine management systems, the risks of a “cheat device”. It was obvious to all that engineers might be tempted to manoeuvre a recalcitrant engine through a challenging emissions test by writing software so as to detect test conditions and thereon modify performance.

In the better sort of motor company, engineers were left in no doubt that this was forbidden and the issue was heavily policed with code reviews and process surveillance.

This was not something that nobody saw coming, not a blind spot of risk identification.

The Iron Law

I wrote before about the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Decision taking executives in an organisation try not to pass information upwards. That will only result in interference and enquiry. Supervisory boards are well aware of this phenomenon because, during their own rise to the board, they themselves were the senior managers who constituted the oligarchy and who kept all the information to themselves. As I guessed last time I wrote, decisions like this don’t get taken at board level. They are taken out of the line of sight of the board.

Governance

So here we have a known risk. A threat that would likely not be detected in the usual run of line management. And it was of such a magnitude as would inflict hideous ruin on Volkswagen’s value, accrued over decades of hard built customer reputation. Volkswagen, an eminent manufacturer with huge resources, material, human and intellectual. What was the governance function to do?

Borrowing strength again

It would have been simple, actually simple, to secret shop the occasional vehicle and run it through an on-road emissions test. Any surprising discrepancy between the results and the regulatory tests would then have been a signal that the company was at risk and triggered further investigation. An important check on any data integrity is to compare it with cognate data collected by an independent route, data that shares borrowing strength.

Volkswagen’s governance function simply didn’t do the simple thing. Never have so many ISO 31000 manuals been printed in vain. Theirs were the pot odds of a jaywalker.

Knowledge

In the English breach of trust case of Baden, Delvaux and Lecuit v Société Générale [1983] BCLC 325, Mr Justice Peter Gibson identified five levels of knowledge that might implicate somebody in wrongdoing.

  • Actual knowledge.
  • Wilfully shutting one’s eyes to the obvious (Nelsonian knowledge).
  • Wilfully and recklessly failing to make such enquiries as an honest and reasonable man would make.
  • Knowledge of circumstances that would indicate the facts to an honest and reasonable man.
  • Knowledge of circumstances that would put an honest and reasonable man on enquiry.

I wonder where VW would place themselves in that.

How do you sound when you feel sorry?

… is the somewhat barbed rejoinder to an ungracious apology. Let me explain how to be sorry. There are three “R”s.

  • Remorse: Different from the “regret” that you got caught. A genuine internal emotional reaction. The public are good at spotting when emotions are genuine but it is best evidenced by the following two “R”s.
  • Reparation: Trying to undo the damage. VW will not have much choice about this as far as the motorists are concerned but the shareholders may be a different matter. I don’t think Horn’s director’s insurance will go very far.
  • Reform: This is the barycentre of repentance. Can VW now change the way it operates to adopt genuine governance and systematic risk management?

Mr Horn tells us that he has little control over what happens in his company. That is probably true. I trust that he will remember that at his next remuneration review. If there is one.

When they said, “Repent!”, I wonder what they meant.

Leonard Cohen
The Future

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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

 

FIFA and the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Йозеф Блаттер.jpgIn 1911, Robert Michels embarked on one of the earliest investigations into organisational culture. Michels was a pioneering sociologist, a student of Max Weber. In his book Political Parties he aggregated evidence about a range of trade unions and political groups, in particular the German Social Democratic Party.

He concluded that, as organisations become larger and more complex, a bureaucracy inevitably forms to take, co-ordinate and optimise decisions. It is the most straightforward way of creating alignment in decision making and unified direction of purpose and policy. Decision taking power ends up in the hands of a few bureaucrats and they increasingly use such power to further their own interests, isolating themselves from the rest of the organisation to protect their privilege. Michels called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

These are very difficult matters to capture quantitavely and Michels’ limited evidential sampling frame has more of the feel of anecdote than data. “Iron Law” surely takes the matter too far. However, when we look at the allegations concerning misconduct within FIFA it is tempting to feel that Michels’ theory is validated, or at least has gathered another anecdote to take the evidence base closer to data.

But beyond that, what Michels surely identifies is a danger that a bureaucracy, a management cadre, can successfully isolate itself from superior and inferior strata in an organisation, limiting the mobility of business data and fostering their own ease. The legitimate objectives of the organisation suffer.

Michels failed to identify a realistic solution, being seduced by the easy, but misguided, certainties of fascism. However, I think that a rigorous approach to the use of data can guard against some abuses without compromising human rights.

Oligarchs love traffic lights

I remember hearing the story of a CEO newly installed in a mature organisation. His direct reports had instituted a “traffic light” system to report status to the weekly management meeting. A green light meant all was well. An amber light meant that some intervention was needed. A red light signalled that threats to the company’s goals had emerged. At his first meeting, the CEO found that nearly all “lights” were green, with a few amber. The new CEO perceived an opportunity to assert his authority and show his analytical skills. He insisted that could not be so. There must be more problems and he demanded that the next meeting be an opportunity for honesty and confronting reality.

At the next meeting there was a kaleidoscope of red, amber and green “lights”. Of course, it turned out that the managers had flagged as red the things that were either actually fine or could be remedied quickly. They could then report green at the following meeting. Real career limiting problems were hidden behind green lights. The direct reports certainly didn’t want those exposed.

Openness and accountability

I’ve quoted Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow before.

… a manager is an information channel of decidedly limited capacity.

Essays in the Theory of Risk-Bearing

Perhaps the fundamental problem of organisational design is how to enable communication of information so that:

  • Individual managers are not overloaded.
  • Confidence in the reliable satisfaction of process and organisational goals is shared.
  • Systemic shortfalls in process capability are transparent to the managers responsible, and their managers.
  • Leading indicators yield early warnings of threats to the system.
  • Agile responses to market opportunities are catalysed.
  • Governance functions can exploit the borrowing strength of diverse data sources to identify misreporting and misconduct.

All that requires using analytics to distinguish between signal and noise. Traffic lights offer a lousy system of intra-organisational analytics. Traffic light systems leave it up to the individual manager to decide what is “signal” and what “noise”. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman has studied how easily managers are confused and misled in subjective attempts to separate signal and noise. It is dangerous to think that What you see is all there is. Traffic lights offer a motley cloak to an oligarch wishing to shield his sphere of responsibility from scrutiny.

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. Process behaviour charts capture the development of process performance over time, for better or for worse. They challenge the current reality of performance through the Voice of the Customer. They capture a shared heuristic for characterising variation as signal or noise.

Individual managers may well prefer to interpret the chart with various competing narratives. The message of the data, the Voice of the Process, will not always be unambiguous. But collaborative sharing of data compels an organisation to address its structural and people issues. Shared data generation and investigation encourage an organisation to find practical ways of fostering team work, enabling problem solving and motivating participation. It is the data that can support the organic emergence of a shared organisational narrative that adds further value to the data and how it is used and developed. None of these organisational and people matters have generalised solutions but a proper focus on data drives an organisation to find practical strategies that work within their own context. And to test the effectiveness of those strategies.

Every week the press discloses allegations of hidden or fabricated assets, repudiated valuations, fraud, misfeasance, regulators blindsided, creative reporting, anti-competitive behaviour, abused human rights and freedoms.

Where a proper system of intra-organisational analytics is absent, you constantly have to ask yourself whether you have another FIFA on your hands. The FIFA allegations may be true or false but that they can be made surely betrays an absence of effective governance.

#oligarchslovetrafficlights

Do I have to be a scientist to assess food safety?

I saw this BBC item on the web before Christmas: Why are we more scared of raw egg than reheated rice? Just after Christmas seemed like a good time to blog about food safety. Actually, the link I followed asked Are some foods more dangerous that others? A question that has a really easy answer.

However, understanding the characteristic risks of various foods and how most safely to prepare them is less simple. Risk theorist John Adams draws a distinction between readily identified inherent and obvious risks, and risks that can only be perceived with the help of science. Food risks fall into the latter category. As far as I can see, “folk wisdom” is no reliable guide here, even partially. The BBC article refers to risks from rice, pasta and salad vegetables which are not obvious. At the same time, in the UK at least, the risk from raw eggs is very small.

Ironically, raw eggs are one food that springs readily to British people’s minds when food risk is raised, largely due to the folk memory of a high profile but ill thought out declaration by a government minister in the 1980s. This is an example of what Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called an availability heuristic: If you can think of it, it must be important.

Food safety is an environment where an individual is best advised to follow the advice of scientists. We commonly receive this filtered, even if only for accessibility, through government agencies. That takes us back to the issue of trust in bureaucracy on which I have blogged before.

I wonder whether governments are in the best position to provide such advice. It is food suppliers who suffer from the public’s misallocated fears. The egg fiasco of the 1980s had a catastrophic effect on UK egg sales. All food suppliers have an interest in a market characterised by a perception that the products are safe. The food industry is also likely to be in the best position to know what is best practice, to improve such practice, to know how to communicate it to their customers, to tailor it to their products and to provide the effective behavioural “nudges” that promote safe handling. Consumers are likely to be cynical about governments, “one size fits all” advice and cycles of academic meta-analysis.

I think there are also lessons here for organisations. Some risks are assessed on the basis of scientific analysis. It is important that the prestige of that origin is communicated to all staff who will be involved in working with risk. The danger for any organisation is that an individual employee might make a reassessment based on local data and their own self-serving emotional response. As I have blogged before, some individuals have particular difficulty in aligning themselves with the wider organisation.

Of course, individuals must also be equipped with the means of detecting when the assumptions behind the science have been violated and initiating an agile escalation so that employee, customer and organisation can be protected while a reassessment is conducted. Social media provide new ways of sharing experience. I note from the BBC article that, in the UK at least, there is no real data on the origins of food poisoning outbreaks.

So the short answer to the question at the head of this blog still turns out to be “yes”. There are some things where we simply have to rely on science if we want to look after ourselves, our families and our employees.

But even scientists are limited by their own bounded rationality. Science is a work in progress. Using that science itself as a background against which to look for novel phenomena and neglected residual effects leverages that original risk analysis into a key tool in managing, improving and growing a business.

Trouble at the EU

I enjoy Metro the UK national free morning newspaper. It has a very straightforward non-partisan style. This morning there was an article dealing with the European Union’s (EU’s) accounting difficulties. There were a couple of very telling admissions from an EU bureaucrat. We lawyers love an admission.

Aidas Palubinskas, from the European Court of Auditors, … described the error rate as ‘relatively stable from year to year’.

He admits that the EU’s accounting is a stable system of trouble. That is a system where there is only common cause variation, variation common to the whole of the output, but where the system is still incapable of reliably delivering what the customer wants. Recognising that one is embedded in such a problem is the first step towards operational improvement. W Edwards Deming addressed the implications of the stable system and the strategy for its improvement at length in his seminal book Out of the Crisis (1982). The problems are not intractable but the solution demands leadership and adoption of the correct improvement approach.

Unfortunately, the second half of the quote is less encouraging.

He said the errors highlighted in its report were ‘examples of inefficiency, but not necessarily of waste’.

This makes me fear that the correct approach is far off for the EU. Everything that is not efficient, timely and effective delivery of what the customer wants is waste, as Toyota call it muda. Waste represents the scope of opportunity for improvement, for improving service and simultaneously reducing its cost. The first step in improvement is taken by accepting that waste is not inevitable and that it can be incrementally eliminated through use of appropriate tools under competent leadership.

The next step to improvement is to commit to the discipline of eliminating waste progressively. That requires leadership. That sort of leadership is often found in successful organisations. The EU, however, faces particular difficulties as an international bureaucracy with a multi-partisan political master and a democratically disengaged public. It is not easy to see where leadership will come from. This is a common problem of state bureaucracies.

Palubinskas is right to seek to analyse the problems as a stable system of trouble. However, beyond that, the path to radical improvement lies in rejecting the casual acceptance of waste and in committing to continual improvement of every process for delivery of service.

Richard Dawkins champions intelligent design (for business processes)

Richard Dawkins has recently had a couple of bad customer experiences. In each he was confronted with a system that seemed to him indifferent to his customer feedback. I sympathise with him on one matter but not the other. The two incidents do, in my mind, elucidate some important features of process discipline.

In the first, Dawkins spent a frustrating spell ordering a statement from his bank over the internet. He wanted to tell the bank about his experience and offer some suggestions for improvement, but he couldn’t find any means of channelling and communicating his feedback.

Embedding a business process in software will impose a rigid discipline on its operation. However, process discipline is not the same thing as process petrification. The design assumptions of any process include, or should include, the predicted range and variety of situations that the process is anticipated to encounter. We know that the bounded rationality of the designers will blind them to some of the situations that the process will subsequently confront in real world operation. There is no shame in that but the necessary adjunct is that, while the process is operated diligently as designed, data is accumulated on its performance and, in particular, on the customer’s experience. Once an economically opportune moment arrives (I have glossed over quote a bit there) the data can be reviewed, design assumptions challenged and redesign evaluated. Following redesign the process then embarks on another period of boring operation. The “boring” bit is essential to success. Perhaps I should say “mindful” rather than “boring” though I fear that does not really work with software.

Dawkins’ bank have missed an opportunity to listen to the voice of the customer. That weakens their competitive position. Ignorance cannot promote competitiveness. Any organisation that is not continually improving every process for planning, production and service (pace W Edwards Deming) faces the inevitable fact that its competitors will ultimately make such products and services obsolete. As Dawkins himself would appreciate, survival is not compulsory.

Dawkins’ second complaint was that security guards at a UK airport would not allow him to take a small jar of honey onto his flight because of a prohibition on liquids in the passenger cabin. Dawkins felt that the security guard should have displayed “common sense” and allowed it on board contrary to the black letter of the regulations. Dawkins protests against “rule-happy officials” and “bureaucratically imposed vexation”. Dawkins displays another failure of trust in bureaucracy. He simply would not believe that other people had studied the matter and come to a settled conclusion to protect his safety. It can hardly have been for the airport’s convenience. Dawkins was more persuaded by something he had read on the internet. He fell into the trap of thinking that What you see is all there is. I fear that Dawkins betrays his affinities with the cyclist on the railway crossing.

When we give somebody a process to operate we legitimately expect them to do so diligently and with self discipline. The risk of an operator departing from, adjusting or amending a process on the basis of novel local information is that, within the scope of the resources they have for taking that decision, there is no way of reliably incorporating the totality of assumptions and data on which the process design was predicated. Even were all the data available, when Dawkins talks of “common sense” he was demanding what Daniel Kahneman called System 2 thinking. Whenever we demand System 2 thinking ex tempore we are more likely to get System 1 and it is unlikely to perform effectively. The rationality of an individual operator in that moment is almost certainly more tightly bounded than that of the process designers.

In this particular case, any susceptibility of a security guard to depart from process would be exactly the behaviour that a terrorist might seek to exploit once aware of it.

Further, departures from process will have effects on the organisational system, upstream, downstream and collateral. Those related processes themselves rely on the operator’s predictable compliance. The consequence of ill discipline can be far reaching and unanticipated.

That is not to say that the security process was beyond improvement. In an effective process-oriented organisation, operating the process would be only one part of the security guard’s job. Part of the bargain for agreeing to the boring/ mindful diligent operation of the process is that part of work time is spent improving the process. That is something done offline, with colleagues, with the input of other parts of the organisation and with recognition of all the data including the voice of the customer.

Had he exercised the “common sense” Dawkins demanded, the security guard would have risked disciplinary action by his employers for serious misconduct. To some people, threats of sanctions appear at odds with engendering trust in an organisation’s process design and decision making. However, when we tell operators that something is important then fail to sanction others who ignore the process, we undermine the basis of the bond of trust with those that accepted our word and complied. Trust in the bureaucracy and sanctions for non-compliance are complementary elements of fostering process discipline. Both are essential.

Trust in bureaucracy I – the Milgram experiments

I have recently been reading Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine which analyses, criticises and re-assesses the “obedience” experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram performed in the early 1960s. For the uninitiated there is a brief description of the experiments on Dr Perry’s website. You can find a video of the experiments here.

The experiments have often been cited as evidence for a constitutional human bias towards compliance in the face of authority. From that interpretation has grown a doctrine that the atrocities of war and of despotism are enabled by the common man’s (sic) unresistsing obedience to even a nominal superior, and further that inherent cruelty is eager to express itself under the pretext of an order.

Perry mounts a detailed challenge to the simplicity of that view. In particular, she reveals how Milgram piloted his experiments and fine tuned them so that they would produce the most signal obedient behaviour. The experiments took place within the context of academic research. The experimenter did everything to hold himself out as the representative of an overwhelmingly persuasive body of scientific knowledge. At every stage the experimenter reassured the subject and urged them to proceed. Given this real pressure applied to the experimental subjects, even a 65% compliance rate was hardly dramatic. Most interestingly, the actual reaction of the subjects to their experience was complex and ambiguous. It was far from the conventional view of the cathartic release of supressed violence facilitated by a directive from a figure with a superficial authority. Erich Fromm made some similar points about the experiments in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

What interests me about the whole affair is its relevance to an issue which I have raised before on this blog: trust in bureaucracy. Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to describe how modern societies and organisations rely on a bureaucracy, an administrative policy-making group, to maintain the operation of complex dynamic systems. Studies of engineering and science as bureaucratic professions include Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision.

The majority of Milgram’s subjects certainly trusted the bureaucracy represented by the experimenter, even in the face of their own fears that they were doing harm. This is a stark contrast to some failures of such trust that I have blogged about here. By their mistrust, the cyclist on the railway crossing and the parents who rejected the MMR vaccination placed themselves and others in genuine peril. These were people who had, as far as I have been able to discover, no compelling evidence that the engineers who designed the railway crossing or the scientists who had tested the MMR vaccine might act against their best interests.

So we have a paradox. The majority of Milgram’s subjects ignored their own compelling fears and trusted authority. The cyclist and the parents recklessly ignored or actively mistrusted authority without a well developed alternative world view. Whatever our discomfort with Milgram’s demonstrations of obedience we feel no happier with the cyclist’s and parents’ disobedience. Prof Jerry M Burger partially repeated Milgram’s experiments in 2007. He is quoted by Perry as saying:

It’s not as clear cut as it seems from the outside. When you’re in that situation, wondering, should I continue or should I not, there are reasons to do both. What you do have is an expert in the room who knows all about this study and presumably has been through this many times before with many participants, and he’s telling you, there’s nothing wrong. The reasonable, rational thing to do is to listen to the guy who’s the expert when you’re not sure what to do.

Organisations depend on a workforce aligned around trust in that organisation’s policy and decision making machinery. Even in the least hierarchical of organisations, not everybody gets involved in every decision. Whether it’s the decision of a co-worker with an exotic expertise or the policy of a superior in the hierarchy, compliance and process discipline will succeed or fail on the basis of trust.

The “trust” that Milgram’s subjects showed towards the experimenter was manufactured and Perry discusses how close the experiment ran to acceptable ethical standards.

Organisations cannot rely on such manufactured “trust”. Breakdown of trust among employees is a major enterprise risk for most organisations. The trust of customers is essential to reputation. A key question in all decision making is whether the outcome will foster trust or destroy it.