Quality Control?

A recent story echos a former experience with the Ford Motor Company:

The engineer said: “We’d raise our hands and be told, ‘Don’t be naysayers.’ We got strange comments. It seemed the ship had sailed. After that, if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny, so you put your head down and make it work. Good people tried to make it work. But you can’t violate the laws of physics. It’s a mechanical catastrophe.”

He was referring to the DPS6 dual-clutch “PowerShift” transmission used in 2 million Focus and Fiesta cars sold this decade that is the subject of massive litigation and a federal criminal fraud probe.

The case is one of flawed transmissions which Ford knew about and decided to continue to produce anyway. This case reminds me of the infamous Pinto case in which that car was known to have a sharp object that, upon impact, pierced the gas tank and in several instances incinerated the occupants. Ford was taken to court and in their defense they argued that the cost of avoiding this problem (which in an individual case was minimal, a few dollars) was prohibitive. It would require recalibrating the entire production line and necessitate lengthy delays in producing more and more cars. Ford admitted publicly that the cost of the adjustment to avoid the problem was a great deal more than the cost of a few court cases brought against the company in the name of those who had been disfigured by crashes and the inferno that followed. They opted to continue to ignore the problem. Eventually they stopped production of the Pinto, due, perhaps, to the stir that was caused when the corporate decision was brought to light by Mike Wallace on CBS.

In the world of Big Business there is always a calculation that weighs the costs against the benefits. The benefits, of course, are profits. And the costs are almost always those nagging problems that may or may not end up in headlines. Those in high places in corporations like The Ford Motor Company are very good at denial and in passing the buck. In fact, in many cases in which companies have been found neglectful it has been virtually impossible to figure out who was responsible. Who is the company after all?

In Bhopal, India years ago when a gas leak at Union Carbide India, Ltd. killed more than two thousand people, an engineer was found who should have turned a handle and he was fired. In the infamous B.F. Goodrich Brake Scandal in which an engineer, Kermit Vandiver, blew the whistle on a company that, in order to deliver the product below cost, was about to release a brake on a plane that would have failed to stop the plane when landing, Vandiver was later fired. The company was not found responsible. Again, who is the company?

Apparently the only body that has been able to answer this question is the United States Supreme Court when a few years ago in the case of “Citizens United” they determined that corporations are legal persons and are entitled to the same protections as any other citizen. Interesting, since as far as I know corporations cannot reproduce their kind or even catch a cold. But the decision of the court made it possible for corporations to open their treasure troves and pour tons of money into political races in order to determine the outcomes in their favor. Yet they are seldom, if ever, found culpable in courts of law.

In any event, the case of the Ford Motor Company is interesting because it raises once again the question whistle blowing. As the spokesperson said in the quote above, “if you ask questions, you’re accused of mutiny.” Companies want good soldiers, employees who will do what they are told, toe the line as it were. They do not want employees who can think for themselves and point out that the company is at fault and may be turning out a faulty product that may end up costing someone his or her life. Whistle blowers are almost always fired, or if protected by laws as they are in some states, they are made to feel like a pariah and given menial jobs in the hope that they will quit on their own.

On the contrary, whistle blowers ought to be lauded and rewarded by their companies since they have the best interest of the company at heart — and they also show signs of having a lively conscience which corporations — persons though they may be in the eyes of the Court — obviously lack.