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Should We Really Throw Out The Baby?

With the bath water? I have heard this idiom since I was a young child, as my parents, particularly my father, enjoyed using idioms to make a point or teach a lesson. This specific idiom was used to teach the lesson that you don’t throw an entirety of something away, just because a part of it should be. It came to my mind when I read a response to my last post on why I love my new car. The response accused me of being overly positive about an industry rife with problems. The thing is, over the past couple years, I myself have been struggling in an industry that I loved, deciding if I should leave, or how I could possibly fall in love with it again, despite seeing the now infamous deeply ethical problems that primarily come down to organizational and leadership issues.

In order to write this blog, I checked the origin of the idiom and was amused to see that Wikipedia credits its origin to the German language (particularly apt for the recent diesel scandals originating there) – “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”. And undeniably, there is some pretty foul bathwater these days emanating from the global automotive industry. Per recent articles in US and global press: One company creating a specific test for the diesel engine controllers to detect the emission tests and pass them (and likely a few other companies guilty as well). Another company deciding not to correct a problem identified from the supplier due to cost issues that lead to the death of many people. A third, failing to acknowledge and address a problem that led to unintended acceleration. All of these are serious ethical violations, and undeniably must be addressed. It’s just not ok.

However, I would argue that the solution to the problem is not to throw away the industry and give it entirely to the high technology companies, because I believe that there still is a baby in all that muck and slime that is worth cleaning off and saving. That baby is all the people who I referenced in my last article, the people who do work that brings out their best, who give their all, for a product that they are proud of launching in the end.

The muck and slime need to be removed, and I can’t say that I have a solution for that. I do suspect that a good deal of the root cause is linked to the short term focus of publicly traded companies, executive compensation schemes, greed, and leadership cultures that use fear rather than openness and trust, that hide problems rather than embrace them. For the research behind why I suspect these root causes, a great starting place is the work by Robert I Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer out of Stanford, as well as Jim Collins. I had the good fortune to take an organizational behavior class from Professor Sutton and learn of his and Pfeffer’s research, as well as meet Collins and hear him speak. I return to their work time and time again as I try to explain to myself the problems that plague my industry.

The good news is that, at least in my experience and why I still want to spend the rest of my career here, the good people far out-number the bad, so that we do have a chance to work to solve the root cause of the problem. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the best of the automotive industry (the baby) could come together with the best of Silicon Valley and all the other technology innovators around the world to finally clean out that dirty bath water?

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