The Mystery of the Automobile Company Widget

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BRANDY W: You made clear that in your work, very often the surface of the problem had little to do with what was actually going on. Appearances really were deceiving.

JULIAN M: Very often, people were completely oblivious to the human drama underlying the problem and often the problem was very emotional in nature. I’ll give two general examples of this type that I’ve seen in my work. The first—way back years ago, I was in Sandusky, Ohio doing some work. A major automobile company had a subsidiary there that made some kind of widget. A very important part for their cars. They were very troubled because in this particular plant, the production line had a continuous increase in the number of rejected parts. The rejection rate rose from—and I’m just picking these figures out of the air since I don’t remember the exact numbers—3% to 4% and then increased some more, and then finally rose all the way up to 15% which was very costly for the company. We’re talking millions of dollars. So they brought in all kinds of technical consultants and engineers, a consultant in process engineering, a consultant in quality control. They were examining every machine in the line to see which machine might be causing the problem. Because in a production line, you might have fifteen machines. And each one does something with the part. And they were also focusing on the processes itself, very technical. So they spent a lot of time and money trying to figure it out, but nobody was able to figure out what was going on. By then, I had a reputation in the Detroit area. They had heard about me being pretty good at ferreting out causes and problems, so I was brought in. I began by spending a lot of time with the director of process engineering. He was responsible for the whole line. I spent a lot of time asking him questions and watching him work. I also spent quite a bit of time with the quality control man, watching him work. They always have a quality control person who’s involved in the whole production process. When the widget comes off the line at the end, the quality control person inspects and tests the part and rejects the ones that don’t meet the specifications. Eventually, I became aware that the two men, the director of process engineering and the quality control man, didn’t talk much with each other. So because I was seeing that, I very quietly said to myself, “Hmm, maybe something is going on here. They don’t communicate well.” So I went back to the director of manufacturing, and chatted with him, and I said, “These two men don’t communicate much and they seem much of the time to avoid each other and in lots of ways, they seem angry.” And he said, “Yes, I know it.” And I said, “Do you have any idea what might be causing them not to communicate? Because it’s important for the guy in charge of the process engineering and the quality control guy to work together as a team. And he said, “No. That’s why we’ve got you here.” So I began to spend a fair amount of time watching the line work, and watching the quality control man. Other times, I would watch the director of process engineering and I began to sense that they had some pretty strong negative feelings about each other. One day, I had a chance to have coffee with the quality control guy. Now this was after weeks and weeks of all this stuff. And so when the quality control man was taking a break and having coffee, I sat down with him. I don’t remember his name, but let’s say it was Joe. And on that day I said, “Joe. You seem to have pretty strong feelings about Henry, the head of process.” Because we were having our coffee together in an area that was private and no one else was around, he burst out, “I hate the guy. I hate his guts.” He came right out and said it. By then, I had built a relationship of trust, you see. And I said, “Tell me about it.” So he started talking about everything he hated about Henry, and then suddenly he spit out, “The son of a bitch stole my wife away.” I was, of course, stunned and wasn’t sure what to believe so I went back to the director of manufacturing and shared with him, and he said, “My God, we had no idea, but you know, it is true, his wife did leave him. It happened two years ago.” Then it eventually came out that she was now married to the head of process engineering. So it turns out what the quality control guy was doing, was arbitrarily rejecting the parts to punish the process engineer. So after all that time and money, that turned out to be the real reason for the rejection rate climbing so dramatically.

BW: You mentioned that there was awareness that the two men weren’t talking much to each other. And I’m guessing there was probably gossip. Weren’t some people in the company aware of what was going on? Say people in the lower ranks?

JM: That I don’t know. In a company, people are very cautious about telling what they know. Plus, in this case, the upper management really saw it from the beginning as a technical problem, not something more obvious. They may have ignored other reports. They were determined to bring in technical people to solve the problem and technical consultants generally don’t pay any attention to the human factors, the human nature of things, or emotions. They strictly focus on technical stuff.

BW: And they spent a lot of time and money into this type of inquiry.

JM: And that goes on all the time in many companies. A problem is viewed as technical when in actuality it is a human problem.

BW: How long did all of this take?

JM: I can’t remember exactly, but it took months—six, seven, eight months. Maybe ten, I don’t know.

BW: So what was the resolution to all of this? Were you there for that?

JM: Yes, I was quite involved. So I met with the manager of production and went over it pretty thoroughly. And he admitted he didn’t know how to deal with it. And so I suggested that we have a meeting with his boss, who was in charge of the whole plant, plus himself, plus the director of process engineering, and the quality control guy, and get the issue out on the table and talk it out. Because often, my way of helping people solve things is to get the right people together and get them talking it out. And it was very touchy, because when they all came together, and began to talk about it, there was a lot of anger, there was a lot of fear, and so I had to be skilled, very skilled, at being able to work with the group and help them work out a solution. Now in this particular case, we had several meetings with the top people and the two men, and finally it became very clear from our discussions that the healthiest way to solve the problem was to separate the two men. Get both of them out of the company. There was no other way to resolve it. Because the hatred, hostility, suspicion, and resentment between the two men were so deep. And neither one of them seemed particularly interested in working it out. It was healthier for them and healthier for the company to separate them. So unfortunately, the end result and resolution to all of this was that the two guys had to be let go. So that’s a good example of how it can take a long time to find out the real cause. So from the time they first noted the problem and started bringing in experts until it was all finally figured out and the two men were finally let go and it was all resolved, it probably took over a year. So it’s a perfect example that to ferret out the underlying cause, lots of times, it takes questions, you have to build relationships with people, you have to get to know them, you have to build trust, you need to be very observant, all kinds of things, because often, finding out causes can be very difficult. Even in a seemingly obvious case such as this. Especially now it can be difficult. Increasingly, the focus is more and more on the technical.

BW: So the denial of this emotional world is becoming a bigger issue.

JM: Yes, which we can discuss more in the “The Engineer Who Claimed, ‘There is no such thing as emotions.’”

BW: And this is probably complicated by the fact that our technological ability and capacity is more developed than our moral or spiritual level.

JM: Which has frightening implications. I gave sort of a humorous example, but, as anyone can guess, it can be much more serious and scary. I brought this up to give an example of how emotions can have a powerful effect and yet we can be so oblivious. The other example I was going to give is a type that’s been around forever and is as old as the hills. Let’s see, in this example, the company would have had 200-300 employees, a very successful manufacturing company. The founder of the company was a very brilliant person. He had a lot of patents that made them a leader in certain kinds of equipment used in the big automobile factories. They had been very successful for twenty-five years. The founder was originally the president and when he got older, he became chairman of the board and he appointed his younger brother to be the president. Soon after that, the company was in trouble. Sales were going down, profits were going down. They reached a point where they were heading into a serious loss situation. Now the executive vice president—he wasn’t related to the founder—was a very competent person and he was really providing some outstanding leadership. Over a period of about three years, this executive vice president—his first name was Bill—was able to basically help the company turn around. He sold off a lot of their manufacturing plants around the country that weren’t producing, all kinds of things, he did a beautiful job. He had heard of me and brought me in to be doing some work with him and with his sales people. And he brought the company back into a profit position and so he was promoted to become president by the board and the founder’s brother was shuffled into a more minor position. Well, shortly after he was president, probably for a few months, the board had a special meeting and fired him which was devastating to him. And he didn’t understand and I didn’t understand and nobody understood. But over a period of time, it came out that, guess what, an executive who lost his job when all of these changes and reshuffling took place turned out to be the favorite nephew of the founder’s wife. And she was very angry because Bill had become president and because her favorite nephew was out of work. She was a very strong woman. The founder was frightened of her. He didn’t know how to deal with her. Along with that, around this time, the incompetent younger brother had a strange accident flying his own plane—he somehow managed to survive. Maybe the founder felt sorry for his brother, was emotionally worked up because of the accident, who knows. I never fully understood it, but any ways, long story short, the founder called the board together and had some kind of excuse and got the board to fire Bill. And then he had them reinstate the incompetent brother along with the incompetent nephew. In the long run, the company suffered terribly for it, but regardless they got their positions back and the very competent president lost his. So that’s a perfect example of emotions at work in irrational ways in the form of family drama, favoritism, and good ole nepotism. Everyone has probably run into some variation of this garden variety corruption. Some incompetent person is favored unfairly—an incompetent relative, friend, or associate is rewarded not based on any qualification or ability, but just based on these ties and connections. Very frustrating, but relatively benign compared to extreme cases such as the mafia, organized crime. So I gave two sort of amusing examples of how the emotional world or emotions in irrational ways can be a problem. But having no emotion is also a problem which we can discuss in “The Engineer Who Claimed, ‘There is no such thing as emotions.’”