Elon Musk keeps making the same mistakes at Tesla

My friend at NYU, Prof. Melissa Schilling, (thanks, Oscar) and I have a running debate about Tesla. She emphasizes how smart and genuinely innovative Musk is. I emphasize how he seems to treat Tesla like another R&D driven company – but it is making a very different product. Melissa is quoted in this article:

Tesla risks a blowout as problems mount, but fans keep the hype machine in overdrive

Case in point: Tesla sent workers home, with no pay, for the production shutdown last week. My discussion is after the break.

During the pause, workers can choose to use vacation days or stay home without pay. This is the second such temporary shutdown in three months for a vehicle that’s already significantly behind schedule.

Source: Tesla Is Temporarily Shutting Down Model 3 Production. Again.

The question is “Has Musk learned from his mistakes?” The evidence is that he has not. It’s sad.
Quote from the article: “I have absolute confidence that the Model 3 production problems will be solved and that it will be a successful car,” says Melissa Schilling, ”
I hope you are right. BUT Musk’s great talent seems to have a big blind spot. He is great on innovation for new concepts. But his projects that work seem to be extremely low volume: spaceships, tunnel boring, and many others that I have forgotten. Making 100s of millions of batteries or 100,000 autos is entirely different.
I trust everyone will agree that he was initially completely ignorant about this. He said that Tesla was going to skip an entire stage of moving to full scale production because he and his team were so smart that they did not need it! (Does anyone disagree that in retrospect this was a big mistake?)  In fact it’s fair to say that Tesla is still in ramp-up stage for Model 3.

So the question is “has he learned enough to fundamentally change his worldview as a result of Tesla’s manufacturing problems?” 2 years ago I would have bet that he would learn. But he seems to keep making the same mistakes.
For example, sending the hourly workers on a mandatory break for a short period last week is a classic dumb move which the great Japanese car companies would never do! The $ savings must be minor relative to the company’s financial position. But he STILL apparently thinks his hourly workers are interchangeable robots. And this is a relatively minor example of  Tesla’s misconceptions.

3 thoughts on “Elon Musk keeps making the same mistakes at Tesla

  1. Hi Roger (and Melissa),

    One of the characteristic attitudinal dimensions often found in and demonstrated by highly entrepreneurial individuals (both past and present) is an overabundance of hubris. In Elon’s case, his THINKING AND BEHAVING patterns appear to be devoid of any connection to the past; particularly when it comes to lessons learned. Why this is and where it comes from is certainly up for debate. But it can be argued that it has something to do with the way mental models come into being and evolve over time. And in that regard, one’s prevailing perception of how the world works and why it works the way it does has a great deal to do with one’s developmental experiences; particularly early on in one’s developmental process.

    In this context, Dr. Morris Massey highlights in his colorful training video presentations the fact that … “YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE, BECAUSE OF WHERE YOU WERE WHEN.” And it’s in this context that I believe Elon’s mental model of the world was shaped early on in ways that downplayed the importance of any historical perspective.

    [Note: Here’s a like to a snippet of one of Massey’s recent training videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6rPiehHQu8 ]

    Speaking of historical perspectives, as far back of the 1970’s, Dr. Richard Nolan (of Nolan, Norton & Co. notoriety) wrote a HBR article that introduced the world in general and the IT community in particular to the “Stages Of Growth Model.” What’s most relevant about that model is the notion of organizations having to progress through evolutionary stages of development in their adoption and utilization of Information Technologies. In essence, those stages represented successive learning curves, And as was made clear during my time with NNC in the mid to late ’80’s, it’s NOT POSSIBLE FOR ANY ORGANIZATION TO SUCCESSFULLY SKIP OR BY-PASS A STAGE.

    Why has that axiom held true over the course of time since its inception? Well, the answer has everything to do with the organizational mechanisms underlying the building and subsequent evolution of the COMPETENCIES AND CAPABILITIES (at the individual, team/group, departmental, and enterprise-wide levels) needed to most efficiently and effectively adopt and utilize advanced technologies as an “ENABLER.” There is a very lengthy list of organizations that have attempted to skip the requisite [LEARNING] stages and ended up with their advanced technologies functioning more as a “DISABLER.” GM being one of the most poignant examples.

    Bottom line: According to Massey, the news about what it takes for most folks to make the needed/appropriate adjustments to their prevailing mental model is NOT GOOD. He has found that it all-too-often takes a SIGNIFICANT EMOTIONAL IMPACT to get someone like Musk to change for the better. That said…. FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS!!!!!!!

  2. Thank you. Indeed, that seems to fit here. But I still find it paradoxical that he is so good at “figuring things out in novel situations” for some things, and not for others. Perhaps (in your terminology) his early mental models were excellent for some technologies/situations, but mass manufacturing was not among them. I have seen the same thing at other companies with strong engineering cultures.

  3. Hi Roger,
    What’s that saying about a clock? I believe it goes something to the effect that “even a broken/stopped clock is correct two times each day.” That said, when you reference the “novel situations” that Musk (likely along with a number of others) has been able to figure out, I’m curious to know which of the Cynefin framework categories those situations might belong in… Complex, Complicated, Chaotic, or Simple?

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