Thursday, February 27, 2014

If Your Product Has a Problem, Please Don't Wait for People to Die to Report It

When is it time to notify the public that there is a potentially serious flaw in your product? If you've read even one of these posts before, you'll know that my answer is: Immediately.

But that almost never happens, right?

Another "great" example has just surfaced in the last two days, as General Motors doubled the size of a recall -- to nearly 1.4 million cars in the US alone -- for an ignition switch defect.

As reported yesterday by The New York Times' Christopher Jensen (full article, here), "The recall is aimed at vehicles with ignition switches that could inadvertently turn off the engine and vehicle electrical system -- disabling the air bags -- if the ignition key is jarred or the vehicle's operator has a heavy key ring attached to it."

Quick: check how many keys are on that same ring with your car's ignition key.

The cars being recalled are all no longer in production: 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2007 Pontiac G5 models, 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstices, and 2006-2007 Saturn Sky models.

But what's particularly distressing is the speed, or lack thereof, in making the recall happen. In the interim, there have been 13 fatalities.

According to a USA Today timeline (full story by James R. Healey and Fred Meier, here), GM first became aware of the problem in 2004, before the first model rolled off the assembly line:
GM concedes it knew in 2004, before launching the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, that the ignition switch might inadvertently move from "run" to "accessory," stalling the engine and cutting power to safety systems. A company engineer had the problem testing the soon-to-be-launched car and engineers proposed several solutions, but because of "lead time required, cost, and effectiveness of each" solution, none was adopted and the car went on sale with the faulty switch.

Really?!?! "Lead time required, cost, and effectiveness" are equal to the value of 13 lives lost?

Here's the rest of the timeline, as developed by Healey and Meier:

2005: An engineer proposes a "partial fix", but it's not adopted. Later that year, GM realized that "it wasn't just the Cobalt with the risk."
Engineers suggested a simple change in the key from a slot to a round hole to ease stress on the switch... but initial approval later was canceled. It did send dealers a bulletin telling them to modify existing keys with an insert and to tell owners to take extra items off their keychains -- but only if customers came in complaining of stalling problem on the Cobalt. 

2006: "GM OK'd a better switch, but didn't make it so mechanics could identify it." In other words, GM gave the better switch the same part number that the old switch had.

2007: GM "believes" that the new switch was used exclusively in new cars. And officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provide GM with reports of the first fatal crash. "And only then does GM assign an engineer to track Cobalt crashes where the airbags fails."

2009: GM "finally" shifts to the switch design proposed four years earlier.

2013: "GM determines the original switch wasn't made right."

2014: GM announces a recall of Cobalts and Pontiac G5s, and then, almost two weeks later, doubles the number of vehicles to be recalled.

According to the Associated Press, NHTSA is now investigating whether GM acted "quickly enough" (story, as published by the New York Times, here); the agency "has the authority to fine GM as much as $35 million under legislation that went into effect late last year."

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, told CBS News, "This is a case where both GM and NHTSA should be held accountable for doing a recall no later than the spring of 2007....GM did this because they had no other choice, the spotlight of public attention was on.GM is just cutting its losses, doing the right thing, but why were 13 lives lost?" (full story, here)

I'm still hung up on the lack of response to the engineering solutions proposed even before the models were first sold, but that no action was taken after the first fatality is appalling.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Do These Two Stories Have in Common? Trust and Transparency, Of Course

It sometimes takes me well into the following week to get through the entire Sunday New York Times. Thanks to today's weekly snow storm, I'm finally wrapping up my reading...

And one of Sunday's articles made me re-think the way I'd read a piece on Monday.

Monday, Eric Lipton wrote about the fight over raising (or not) the minimum wage (full article, here). There's a lot of big lobbying money on both sides, he noted, and the biggest money often comes disguised:
Just four blocks from the White House is the headquarters of the Employment Policies Institute, a widely quoted economic research center whose academic reports have repeatedly warned that increasing the minimum wage could be harmful, increasing poverty and unemployment.

But something fundamental goes unsaid in the institute's reports: The nonprofit group is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase that the White House and Democrats have pushed for.

The conservative group is not alone in disguising its wolf in sheep's clothing, of course. Liberals are just as guilty.

But when you read an article that quotes a "research paper" produced by the Blah-Blah Institute of Economics, do you automatically wonder whether BBIE is a liberal or a conservative institution? I don't. BBIE sounds pretty non-partisan.

The issue of transparency became clearer to me when I finally worked my way through the whole "Review" section of the Sunday paper, which includes editorials, op-eds, letters, and "The Public Editor" column.

In last Sunday's Public Editor column, Margaret Sullivan wrote about impartiality in journalism (full column, here).

Back at the dawn of time, in my first post-college "real" job, I was a newspaper reporter for a small-city daily. In those days, while the "New Journalism" was already slashing through the curtain of pure impartiality, we tried hard not to let our own feelings and biases show. If anything, we bent over backwards to be fair to the "other guy". But of course we had feelings and biases, which were never disclosed to our readers.

As Sullivan writes,
Journalists bring their backgrounds, their beliefs, perhaps their faith, their politics, and their relationships to what they do. Traditional journalism says: "Set those aside. Be as objective as possible." A newer line of thought says: "Be who you are and own it. Just tell readers where you're coming from."

I agree with that "newer line of thought", although it's a lot easier for a columnist or critic than for a beat reporter. And how much should I disclose about myself? Where, exactly, am I "coming from"? To write about distrust of bankers, should I disclose my credit score? I don't think so -- but if my husband were a hedge-fund director, I should probably mention that (he isn't).

But, as Sullivan notes, "transparency is the new objectivity". So be transparent. Because that's the foundation for Trust.

And journalists,don't just tell me about yourselves: if you're going to quote an Blah-Blah Institute of Economics paper, tell me who funds BBIE, and not just what the paper says.

If you want my Trust, I need your Transparency.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Distrust Continues After Toxic Spill, And I Can't Say I'm Surprised. Are You?

About a month ago, I wrote a follow-up post on the chemical spill into the river that provides drinking water for Charleston, W. Va., and surrounding communities. The most expensive result of the spill, I thought then, would not be the actual clean-up costs, but the even-more-corrosive effect on people's trust.

Even though health officials had given the "all clear", residents were still concerned. Was the water really safe for drinking, bathing, cooking?

Today's New York Times makes it clear that the distrust continues. Trip Gabriel, who covered the initial leak and clean-up, writes (full story, here) that
What began as a public health emergency after chemicals contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people has spiraled into a crisis of confidence in state and federal authorities, as residents complain of confusing messages and say they do not trust experts. The spill continues to arouse fear and outrage, and it threatens a political crisis in a state where lawmakers have long supported the coal and chemical industries.

Federal and state officials say the water is safe, but at the same time, school officials are sending students home because the tell-tale licorice smell is once again wafting from water pipes. Residents simply want to know: Who can I trust?

When it comes to their health and safety and that of their families, residents have decided to "trust their noses." Even the director of the local health department says that he is not drinking tap water, and reportedly "has called for long-term studies of the chemical’s effects on public health and said the official response had become 'a case study of what not to do in order to manage a crisis well.'"

Part of the problem, as Gabriel notes, is that "official" reports of how much "MCHM" (a chemical used in coal processing) was actually leaked into the Kanawha River has been "steadily revised upwards."

In this situation, what would you do as a resident? I know I'd be drinking bottled water, rationing the showers, and cleaning pots and pans with sand, campsite-style.

What should you do if you were a health official? Come clean. All the way. And right away. Tell people what you're sure of, and what you're not sure of. Tell them what you're doing to protect yourself and your family. Tell them what's been done right, and tell them what's been done wrong.

But prepare not to be believed, because Trust, Once Lost... You know how the rest of that line goes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I'm Sorry If Anyone Was Offended....

Isn't that the worst kind of non-apology apology? Why do we hear that, all the time, from politicians and business leaders, from religious leaders and "comedians".

We all know the subtext: I didn't really do/say anything wrong, but my PR people have told me that I should apologize.

It's right up there with "Mistakes were made."

And we know what that means: I've found an underling on whom I can blame this mess, and he is so fired. As soon as he signs that non-disclosure agreement.

I've written before (in a 2010 post, here) about the importance of real apologies. A real apology can rebuild a dangerously broken relationship. A non-apology? Not so much.

A real apology acknowledges that "I screwed up." It says, "I'm sorry about that." And it goes on to "I'm going to fix this."

A non-apology begins and ends with "I'm sorry".

Given how I feel about real apologies, you can imagine how delighted I was to read Andrew Ross Sorkin's DealBook column in today's New York Times, "Too Many Sorry Excuses for Apology". He writes,
The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite. It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are “taking responsibility” and then end with, “I hope to put this behind me.”

If you’re questioning the sincerity of this apology movement, there’s good reason. 

And then he quotes the chief executive of consulting firm LRN, Dov Seidman, calls the current craze for non-apology apologies "apology theater." Or even "apology-washing".

Pause, please, for the applause.

Sorkin quotes Seidman again:
Apologies, by their nature, are remedial; they seek to mitigate damage that has already been done. When admitting wrongdoing can cost an organization significant revenue or an individual his or her job, life or liberty, the temptation to avoid this gesture is enormous.
And that's precisely why a real apology is such a rare beast.

Seidman himself has written a great essay for the Times' DealBook (here) in which he calls for an "apology cease-fire".And then goes on to lay out the characteristics that make a true apology so powerful.

A real apology is the start of real transformation. If I'm not ready for that, you shouldn't want my "Sorry".

Monday, February 3, 2014

Don't Want to Pay Another Salary? Why Not Take It Out of Your Other Employees' Tips? No, No, No.

I'll admit that the New York Daily News isn't my usual read, so it took me a few days to catch up to a story by reporters Robert Gearty and Corky Siemaszko (article, here), that well-known chef and restauranteur Mario Batali and his business partner, Joseph Bastianich, had been ordered to pay $5.25 million to the captain, waiters, and busboys who had for several years been "stiffed out of tips".

My first thought was, What? Batali's not making enough money himself that he has to rip off his low-wage employees?

It turns out to be not quite that bad. Well, yes it is.

According to a Daily Mail article covering the story,
[The approximately 1,100 affected workers] argued that Batali's restaurants would take 4-5 percent of tips from employees in order to pay sommeliers' salaries.

Workers also claim they were often forced to work over 40 hours a week without even making minimum wage.


It should be pretty simple, shouldn't it? You need to hire a sommelier? OK, you hire one. And you pay him or her a real salary, out of the restaurant's proceeds, not off the backs of your other underpaid employees.

Sorry, I don't mean to shout. But stuff like this Makes Me CRAZY.

There I go, shouting again.

The settlement, affecting workers from 2004 to this year, is believed to be the largest of its kind, and still needs to be approved by a Manhattan federal judge.