top of page

Can someone introduce Elon Musk to Dr. Deming (RIP)?

"Car biz is hell..", Elon tweeted recently, bemoaning the difficult and unsexy business of car production of course, not of the glamorous new car launches.

Production problems at Tesla have been an open secret for a while. Investors continued to indulge Elon Musk while he kept announcing his amazing conceptual products (the roadster, the electric truck) and everyone hoped that the modern day genius would surely solve the Model 3 production issues with a flick of his hand. Even when Tesla missed production targets by a factor of 2 or more, no one bothered to question if they even understood the root of those problems. So enamored were all with Elon, that Production problems were seen just as minor issues that he could fix as soon as he decided to pay attention to them.

For professionals with real life production experience, a roll of the eyes is the natural reaction to this hubris. Production is a different animal than R&D and every bit as complex, if not more. It is intriguing to me that smart engineers, technologists and the public in general, have little appreciation of what it takes to produce flawlessly, on time and at cost. The variables in production are an order of magnitude more in count and complexity and usually not under the strict control of the managers compared to R&D (employees falling sick, unexpected supplier problems, equipment reliability, bad weather interrupting product transport etc.). In testing leadership skills, production management excellence is a far better indicator as a result. Not surprisingly, most Fortune 500 companies require production line experience for senior executives. I personally find the art and science of production much more interesting than my early career in R&D. Part of it is the fact that the production score card is 'black and white' - you either delivered to plan or you did not, your employee either had a workplace injury or not. There is no fudging the facts, although people do try.

For my industry, Aerospace is in the middle of an unprecedented ramp up in production. Despite all the bad rap we have endured historically, or perhaps because of that past experience, our OEMs and supply chain seem to have a better sense of reality. Case in point - engine makers recently told airframers that any further increase in narrow body production rates is unsustainable.

So pardon me if I greet the latest news from Tesla, to fix the production woes, with a production manager's roll of eyes. According to his own tweets, Elon Musk is going to start sleeping in the factory to help fix it. Unless he feels his mere presence will magically fix all of Tesla's problems, he seems to be unaware of the basics of production. Not unexpected for someone who has spent his life conceptualizing groundbreaking products but had not the time or opportunity to learn the hard business of production. If the CEO feels the need to be at the production line at all times, he must think his team is a) not trustworthy, b) lazy, c) inadequate, d) not empowered......etc. Wonder how it will affect the employee morale? If you are looking for smart, hardworking employees, it's time to set up your recruiting tables outside Tesla's gate.

Does no one in Elon's team have the courage to tell him that instead of announcing unachievable targets, his focus as a leader should be to find and fix the root causes of the production mess? Has Elon ever heard of Dr. Deming?


bottom of page