I was speaking to a friend recently when he mentioned an e-mail I had sent him a few months before. Quite honestly, I had forgotten about the electronic missive, but I searched through my archives to find a copy. I’m glad I saved it.
The sentiments expressed therein and reprinted below are appropriate, I feel, given the slowdown facing the industry post-September 11. What had begun as a gentle slide into recession has turned into a fall off a cliff with a drop exacerbated by the fact that the auto industry has been in a deflationary cycle for more than five years. Plus, the shaken confidence of the financial community virtually guaranteed there would be no easy way to puncture the remnants of the dot.com bubble still coursing through the economy. The downside would come hard and fast, but–with leadership–the upside is closer than we perceive.
Leadership has been lacking in this industry for decades, and the tragedy of September 11th only served to magnify its absence. For all the hype surrounding 0% financing, no one has asked what the long-term effects might be. It was a short-term expedient to keep staggering overcapacity productive, avoid layoffs in the rank-and-file, and buy market share in an attempt to keep Wall Street happy and stem a continuing sales slide.
My cynicism comes from years of receiving blank stares from those who supposedly knew better. It was a look the late Charlie Haddad saw a lot at Ford as he presented scalable aluminum spaceframe structures that could support multiple drive arrangements. It’s the look everyone who doesn’t “understand” the fixed costs associated with current production methods and staffing faces each time they suggest a better way, or a new direction. And it precedes the demand for “absolute proof” the new way is better. It is for them that I wrote these words:
Do we have “absolute proof” that God exists? No. Yet billions attend church each weekend and pray because they have faith. Do we have “absolute proof” that the world will exist each morning when we awake? No, but experience tells us it will. Do we have “absolute proof” that our children will be physically and mentally intact before they are born? No, but we hope this to be true, and adjust if it isn’t. Do we have “absolute proof” that the time before ours actually existed? No, but our accumulated knowledge and access to those who were there tells us it did.
Remember this: Faith, experience, hope, knowledge, and access to those with the information underlie everything we do in life. We do not start with a clean sheet every morning, we build on the work that has gone before. And those things that we do each day take more than a little faith, for we can never be absolutely sure that the widget we’ve just designed will do exactly what we think it will, or accept the stresses in the manner we expect. Should we then stop what we are doing until we have “absolute proof”? No. We should continue on, making corrections as needed to make things better. Doing anything less brings progress, and ultimately life, to an end.
I think this call for “absolute proof” is an excuse designed to lessen risk to abnormally low levels. It is a way to avoid responsibility, or of having to test your statements and theories in the crucible of competition. It is not wanting to admit you don’t know as much as you claimed, or that–done improperly–your project could fail. It is the polar opposite of leadership and hope.