In 2019, Volkswagen hailed the new Golf 8 as the “greatest leap forward” since the model debuted 45 years earlier. And just a few months later, VW halted sales and recalled 15,000 vehicles due to a software glitch involving the transmission of “unreliable data”.

Though promoted as a vehicle chock-full of software, Volkswagen was unable to get its car too far out the door before having to fix that software.

In our opinion, a lot more fixes are yet to come due to a basic software development fact that many people don’t seem to understand: the more complex the software, the greater the chance there are software bugs that will be triggered once the the public uses the product.

VW CEO Herbert Diess cedes brand leadership over quality troubles

After the software glitch became public, impacting VW’s ability to sell the vehicles, a meeting was called to challenge the CEO’s brand leadership role in the issues.

Volkswagen AG Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess ceded direct control of the German company’s main passenger-car brand after clashing with labor unions over production issues affecting two key models.

The Detroit News

It is an all-too-common fact of working life that executives press for cost reductions while workers press to do the right thing: build a safe product.

Much of my consulting career was spent convincing executives that building something the right way – once – was cheaper than building something fast and sloppily. Executives typically have MBAs and they are well-trained on financial spreadsheets but have never stepped into a test lab or seen a defect log.

Serious quality issues put pressure on other CEOs

VW’s CEO is not the only one to have experienced a bit of an impact due to his hard focus on financials.

In 2013, when certain facts had become a matter of public record about Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration issues and the company could no longer continue to blame “bad drivers” for the problem.  CEO Akio Toyoda bowed and publicly apologized (and also took the opportunity to use the media attention to promote the notion that his cars were actually safe).

Back at the office, though, Toyota’s CEO began unravelling the “sell sell sell” corporate culture that had gotten Toyota away from its original core value—quality. When “sell sell sell” is the only directive, it is too easy to cut safety corners.

And it becomes too difficult for workers to do the right thing and report a problem or halt a launch.  

A company that can put people’s lives at risk based on its products’ complex technology requires:

  • proper communication lines, top-down and bottom-up through one or more executives focused solely on quality
  • a corporate culture geared not only for profit but for the safety and well-being of people who buy and use their products

What is VW’s corporate culture on quality?

It is too early to know if VW will take similar steps to Toyota in terms of refocusing its culture on quality and safety and to actually listen to what the front-line workers have to say. However, it should not take software disasters to bring the proper focus to quality, especially when it comes to companies that build products that can maim and kill people.

It seems that senior executives knew of the software problems back in February 2020 but denied that these issues would impact the launch of the new car.  They were wrong, of course.

Here’s a fact that we software testers know:

  • when building software, the more defects you catch in the test labs before the product is launched, the more defects that are waiting for the consumer in the field.  It’s just a fact of life.  

And something executives need to consider because to reduce potentially deadly software defects, the entire corporate culture needs to shift to focus on quality.

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