qualityWith clear acknowledgement that I am just one of millions of consumers impacted by the Takata Airbag disaster (recall), I feel compelled to vent. I of course vent not by screaming, but by looking for the management lessons in the mess. There are more than a few marketing and management lessons embedded in the industry’s handling of this potentially life-threatening problem.

When Your Safety System Can Hurt You:

I received a note from BMW yesterday indicating that my automobile includes the problematic airbag inflator on the driver’s side. This comes six months after I asked my dealer whether my car was involved. Their response: the manufacturer has not yet indicated whether your car is affected. I understand that the dealer was simply sharing their view of the facts at that point in time. Nonetheless, their response: “the manufacturer has not yet informed us,” was incomplete and unsatisfying. The implication for me as the consumer was either: “Whew, I dodged that one,” to “Hmmm, I wonder if this is a problem.”

I opted to focus on the potential problem, and at that point, I started sizing up my car before driving it with the care of someone scanning the occupants of a Chicago Elevated Train late at night. This change in relationship with my car is particularly troubling given our long love affair. You see, I only enter into long-term relationships with my automobiles, and until now, this has been a great one. At ten years and 50,000 miles, we are just getting started. Unless of course, the car turns on me, which is now a distinct possibility.

System Responsibility—An Anachronism?

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsBefore describing BMW’s response to my particular situation, a bit of background is in order. I grew up in my career working in and leading systems businesses. We wrote software and in some cases developed and manufactured hardware, and we married the pieces together plus many third party technologies to deliver a complete system to our customers. Our systems were material to the minute-to-minute operation of the businesses of our customers.

We also took complete responsibility for the integrity and quality of our systems. That’s code for it did not matter whether there was a problem with something we had created or something we had integrated, it was OUR problem and we owned the fix. This was called in our vernacular: system responsibility.

Part of the process of ensuring system responsibility was working with approved third-party suppliers to establish quality standards and to plan and prepare together for the worst. We did not just hope everything would work out; we evaluated options and issues and made plans for catastrophes known and unknown.

When the worst happened, as it occasionally did, we always opted for the solution that reduced adverse consequences for our customers. In some cases, there was a short-term and long-term fix, but there was never a “We’ll get back to you at some point in time, but please suffer for now.”

These businesses moved heaven and hell to support their customers.

In today’s world, perhaps Apple comes the closest for ensuring system integrity with its very rigid approval process for the App store and for other related third-party products. However, having experienced some quality challenges with offering in the Apple ecosystem, it appears their response stops far short of our historic moving heaven and earth approach.

Contrast the system responsibility approach with BMW’s, which to my ears mostly has the odor of dodge, deflect and prepare for our future legal defense about it.

Here’s what they offered:

  • They sent a letter outlining the problem and indicating that they would fix it. Good.
  • At this time, there are no parts available. Bad.
  • They are not certain when parts will become available. Very bad.
  • Once parts were available, I would be notified via mail that I could call my dealer and schedule the update. Huh? Mail? Very bad. I might expect a text notice complete with timing options at my servicing dealer and the promise of a loaner car.
  • There were no countermeasures in the short-term. They could not recommend disconnecting the potential killing machine known as an airbag and they are not offering a repair, just a replacement at some unknown date. Miserable.
  • In calling the BMW Airbag Recall Hotline, they did their duty and acknowledged the facts and offered no solutions. No short-term countermeasures. No workarounds. And while they did not state it, the gentleman on the line did not disagree with my statement: “It sounds like the safest strategy is to park the car.” Abysmal.
  • The hotline offered: “At this point, there are no known injuries caused by this airbag issue for your model.” Is that really supposed to put me at ease? Poor form.

The implication of all of this is obviously that I drive the car at my own risk—something we all do every single day of course. The difference now is that I have to drive my car with the knowledge that my safety system is capable of hurting me. Yes, I get that cars are dangerous objects, but none of us signed up for this particular risk. In fact, I purchased this car because of its alleged remarkable safety ratings and features.

Just a Very Little Bit of Empathy with the Manufacturer:

Having been on the other side of quality issues at the manufacturer’s level, I can only imagine the nightmare this has created for every car company. And while the root cause of the quality issues is focused on Takata, the firms integrating their parts owe their customers something more than what they are providing. They failed to prepare for the worst. This is a failure of risk management and it seems a complete abrogation of their responsibility to their customers.

The Bottom-line for Now:

There is no sign of systems responsibility in this process. Heck, it feels like backpedaling mixed with a dodge and deflect strategy. The customers who are so important to giving life to the brand are suddenly made to feel ill at ease and even slightly adversarial. Instead of reinforcing their remarkable brand value and integrity, this firm has opted to risk it because they could not control or prepare for problems with a critical parts supplier.

I have enjoyed this car more than any I have ever owned, and at the purchase of one auto every two decades or so, I suspect I am lousy customer for BMW. Nonetheless, as Deming offered in his admonishment to focus on quality: What is the cost of a dissatisfied customer?

Now, I have to go plug in my trickle charger and spend some time detailing my car. It is in for a long sleep.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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