Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cultures of (In)Competence

I call them micro-cultures. Companies create their cultures in numerous ways. They might walk the talk for example. They say that they will treat employees and customers with dignity and respect and then they go ahead and do just that. That, to me, enables a culture of competence.

In other words, a company that is above board in all of its dealings is almost certainly that way internally, where people are expected to do their work and report their progress honestly. To collaborate instead of compete with mal-intent. To own up when they screw up. To allow their subordinates to make a mistake without fear of reprisal. That kind of thing. This is my life today.

What happens in some companies is that management becomes a little sick … using duplicity to hide mistakes and protect bonuses, treating people without respect for their feelings or personal lives, using people for their own gain, that kind of thing.

Cultures like that breed a culture of incompetence, since it drives competent people away and rewards incompetence out of proportion. I’ve been there in the past.

Enter Toyota’s latest move to discredit its critics.

This story is no longer about Toyota’s recall to fix their broken cars. Heck, we don’t even know if they have found the real problem. Evidence seems to suggest that they might be applying 8 million band-aids to try to cure cancer.

And cancer it is.

Software teams are either good or they are not. You can see this quite easily if you look for it.

Back about 15 years, you stayed away from ATI video cards because their drivers simply never worked. And when they got it working, the next driver had the same bugs pop back up. That was a clear indicator. No governance or management of critical resources, like their source code.

Nikon’s software team just cannot do a high performing application with a good user interface. Horrible stuff, unlike their cameras, which are simply wonderful.

Fujifilm. Each generation of compact cameras gets more complex and difficult to use. They just cannot seem to find their way.

And then there is Toyota. More than 50 deaths pinned on their guided missiles, er, cars. Stuck accelerators coupled with brakes that sometimes refuse to override at the critical moment.

I just hate to see people getting killed or hurt because of culture issues that should never have arisen. Put appropriate metrics in place, reward honesty and competence, and reap the rewards. I think that’s pretty much all it takes. Instead, we see memos that tout the savings when investors are mislead to close their investigation. That’s just sad … to have such a culture in a once-great company.

What they might just have to do now is to rewrite their firmware with a different team in a clean room environment. I.e. get some software in those cars that does not have ghosts or gremlins in there. And yes, such things exist. Random race conditions or other state machine errors that suddenly create states that should not exist. And woe be you if your car is the one.

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