Transmission Breakdown

By John B. Swift posted 01-20-2020 07:52


Having your car’s transmission fail is never fun and is generally a pretty expensive event. In some cases it can even be quite dangerous. I used to have an old Buick in which I kept a spare transmission in the trunk for a while, just in case. It was that kind of car.

The recent debacle involving Ford Focus and Fiesta transmissions tells a story of a whole lot of folks having their transmissions fail, with the results ranging from severe inconvenience to outright tragedy. It also tells a story of the engineers who developed the transmissions knowing early on that the units were prone to overheat and fail and allegedly being told by management to keep it quiet for “political” reasons. And by “political” the people quoted in the article appear to mean complex reasons ranging from internal divisions at Ford to rising fuel economy standards to even the Great Recession.

Although it can be hard to stand up for what is right when you could lose your job, there are almost always folks higher up in the organization who need you to speak up, even if it might offend a few people. In fact the story talks about Ford’s legal team’s actively seeking out information that was never communicated up the chain.

Organizational communication is actually quite a bit like an automotive drivetrain. When the Ford transmissions failed, they slipped into a “neutral” mode that effectively disconnected the engine and the wheels and left the car without power—to just roll to a stop. Similarly, the complete disconnect between Ford engineers on the ground and the company’s management and legal teams led to some very disastrous results. It is really a prime example of communication breakdown snowballing into a much larger mess than if the issue had been addressed early on. It will be interesting to see what details come out about the Navigator/Expedition recall going on right now. Obviously Ford is not alone in its share of recalls, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned regardless.