The Human Condition:

Passing the Test – April 10, 2016

Dirty tailpipe

We recently had the awful spectacle of more than half a million diesel Volkswagens in the U.S. and more than ten million worldwide sold under deceptive conditions. While the cars from the iconic maker of the small, smart, sexy “Bug” of the 1960s were supposed to be both environmentally friendly and driver friendly—fuel efficient, powerful, and yet still low emitting—they were actually designed with an engine chip that could tell when the engine was being tested for emissions. The car’s computer then modified its performance to be less polluting and also, presumably, less fun and economical to drive while sitting in the testing stall with its tailpipe hooked up to a gas analyzer. But out on the road, the peppy little cars reportedly dumped forty times the legally allowed level of nitrous oxides and other pollutants.

In its story “Hoaxwagen,Fortune magazine—no foe of big business—calls the deception a “massive … fraud” that “incinerated VW’s reputation.” And truly, those of us who have a warm spot in our hearts for well-made, intelligently designed, fun-to-drive German cars were shaken by the revelation. And those of us who think large corporations making reputable products and selling them at a reasonable price offer a kind of service to the public were saddened. We are certainly not going to turn into anti-capitalists or newly minted socialists over this incident, but we are wondering how reasonable people with long business experience could have thought this kind of chicanery would pass unnoticed.

Fourteen different models of “clean diesel” with the built-in fraud chip were put on sale from 2008 to 2015. That’s an awful lot of physical evidence of fraud for the company to leave lying around. Certainly, someone in the Volkswagen organization must have worried that competitors, envious of Volkswagen’s success with these cars, would reverse-engineer the system and discover the deception. And then it would be whoo-hoo marketing coup!

If it was a simple case of deception … I know most people who hate and fear big corporations will imagine that this was simply another bait-and-switch. That the evil gnomes running Volkswagen rubbed their gnarly hands in glee and said, “We’ll sell them a dirt bag and call it clean! The poor fools will never know the difference! And, as the French say, ‘Après moi le déluge!’ Let next quarter take care of the losses!”

In my forty-year career in corporate America I have worked alongside enough business people to know that most of them are not so stupid. Neither are they consciously corrupt and evil.

I have worked in both a documentation and a communications capacity in highly regulated, high-stakes industries like a worldwide engineering and construction firm, an electric and gas utility running a nuclear power reactor, a major pharmaceutical company, and a maker of genetic analysis equipment. In these organizations, everyone from the executive suite to the plant floor was aware of regulations and took them seriously. They might not always have agreed with every point. And if the regulatory stance was still being formulated—say, during a hearing before an administrative law judge, or while the inspector was on site and discussing the implications of a new observation of infraction—they might have argued their case for a different interpretation. But once the matter was settled, reasonable people complied with the rules.

In my career at these different organizations, I never once heard an executive or manager say anything like, “Oh, well, we can find a way around that!” Or, “I know what the rule says, but here’s what we’re actually going to do!” Not once, not even in jest, and not even when the cost of compliance was high—as when the nuclear power plant’s critical systems had to be redesigned twice to keep up with changing regulatory requirements. And conversely, I never heard a government regulator, a site inspector, or a commission representative say anything like, “There is a problem here, but I can make it go away if you can make it worth my while.”1

I have no reason to believe that German automakers are any less regulated or any more corrupt than their counterparts in American business and industry.2 So if this is the case—that Volkswagen’s executives and managers were and are all serious people who respect the regulations they work under—what happened?

I think I know what went wrong at Volkswagen. And it’s a matter of “group think” and a lack of any rigorous, individualistic approach to thinking and questioning, a lack of anyone pausing to apply common sense and privately held values to what the group was doing. This is a failure to which every organization, regardless of industry or nationality, can fall prey: once a course has been established and an order given from on high, people lower down in the organization simply stop probing, questioning, and interpreting for themselves but set about making the thing work.

So I can well imagine some executive in the diesel engine division at Volkswagen probably gave an order like: “Build a powerful, fuel-efficient diesel that can pass the emissions tests.” This is a difference of interpretation, subtle but critical, from the more general order: “Build a powerful, fuel-efficient diesel that operates cleanly according to the regulations.” And when the engineers in the design group adopted the directive to “pass the test,” instead of “operate cleanly,” no one looked too closely at the resulting chip architecture and software and how it reacted to test conditions differently from road conditions. The question of the actual purpose of the test and any intentional deception in voiding it probably never came up.

The Volkswagen diesel saga is a valuable lesson for every executive in being thoughtful, clear, concise, and careful in issuing directives. The damages Volkswagen will suffer in terms of lawsuits, lost sales, and stricter regulatory scrutiny in the future will cement that lesson for all German companies and for all worldwide automobile manufacturers.

But the Germans and the carmakers are not the only people engaged in such sloppy thinking and directing. The conundrum in American educational circles, facing teachers all across the country today, is the directive for mandatory, statewide, nationwide testing, with pay and promotion, accreditation, and school funding all hanging in the balance.

Good teachers know that the test questions and their answers are only a benchmark, a sample, a slender approximation of what a student should know, understand, and think about at each grade level. Good teachers know that skills like reading comprehension, computational manipulation, thinking deeply, imagining freely, and acquiring and accessing a headful of knowledge are the real goals of education. Picking the most likely choice among three or five posited answers—including dodges like “All of the above” or “None of the above”—in relation to a specific question is a pale gray substitute for reading and loving books and ideas, being able to do math in your head, and feeling comfortable resolving variable questions involving different subject matter.

But under time pressure—and the pressures of survival, prestige, and money—and with the course materials tailor-made for teaching the particular questions and interpretations likely to be found on the standardized tests—both of which come from the same educational bureaucracy—the obvious course, the easy course, the direct course, is to teach what is presented and ensure a winning score. And here again, “group think”—the acceptance of the directive as given, without applying privately held values and common sense—is the factor at work. When the whole organization is headed in a certain direction, what is one person who sees things differently supposed to do?

Big organizations like an international automaker or a federal education administration are powerful. They can focus a tremendous amount of human thought and energy to solve complex problems. Their hierarchical structure enables one person or a small group at the top with clear vision and creative thinking to direct this kind of power. Most of them also use graded career paths to ensure that the route to those key, top-level positions is through demonstrated fidelity to and performance within the organization’s objectives and that each level is staffed and led by serious, sober people who have shown they have the organization’s best interests at heart.

And yet, these organizations are still human structures. They are staffed and led by human beings, who are all too capable of thinking shallowly, moving quickly and carelessly, dismissing obvious objections, and focusing narrowly on single measures of performance. As much as Plato would rule the world through “philosopher kings,” and modern Progressives would like us all to defer to the technical experts in every field, the person who actually achieves power in these organizations too often is no smarter, more skilled, or deeper thinking than anyone else.

All such hierarchical structures should invest in mechanisms that allow for proper feedback. At every level, from the chief executive’s or the cabinet secretary’s inner circle on down, people should be able to discuss and question orders before they are given and codified in policy statements and directives. People at the lower levels should be able to raise their hands and say, “Whoa! What about [common sense]? What about [human values]?” And for [common sense] you can substitute “designing a car that is actually clean on the road.” For [human values], substitute “training kids to pass tests is not the same as educating them.”

I know that’s idealistic thinking. I know that allowing the average person, down on the factory floor, to gum up the works by questioning executive orders, is counterproductive.3 But I’m betting the leaders at Volkswagen now wish someone in their design group had raised a hand and said, “This test-detecting chip isn’t the right approach.” And I’m betting that in twenty years, when the little test-taking robots in today’s schools graduate into the real world without a headful of working knowledge and proper reasoning skills, we’re all going to wish someone had raised a hand and said, “This isn’t the way to raise a generation of children.”

But it’s human nature to learn slowly, if at all. And I can take solace in primary mechanism of personal experience: the greater the failure and more painful the penalty, the stronger and more effective will be the lesson that is learned.

1. And remember, I was working as a technical writer in documentation, where any discrepancy between what the organization promised its regulators and what it told its workers to do would have shown up clearly. I also worked in corporate communications where, if an executive did want to deceive the employees and the public about the corporation’s actions, the lie would first need to be crafted into the suitable words.

2. In fact, the pharmaceutical company I worked for was the U.S. subsidiary of Bayer Corporation, an old German company. The people who came over from the European organization were every bit as serious and straightforward as the American-born executives.

3. Actually, Toyota Corporation includes in its kaizen or “lean production” principles the idea that anyone on the factory floor can stop the production line when he or she sees a quality problem, and work teams are expected to call out and make regular, incremental improvements in their work processes. This is “bottom-up,” democratic action in the workplace.
       And in the modern military, blindly following orders is no longer a guarantee of personal protection. Soldiers are supposed to understand the consequences of their own actions—such as torturing prisoners for information—and refuse to follow illegal orders from their superiors.