Is Elon Musk the Emperor with no clothes?

Like everyone else, I harboured a general admiration for Elon Musk of Tesla fame. A successful, focussed, visionary person who has achieved great success, right.

 I didn’t quite feel the same towards Jeff Bezos - Amazon’s lack of profitability concerns me.

 Then I read this article. (Read in full - well worth it.) Here is a sample:

The key for Amazon making it all these years was to keep people focused on everything but their financials. This is not an exception. Faceberg will never have earnings to justify its share price. In fact, it will never have user rates to justify its ad revenue. It’s not unreasonable to think that everything about the business is fraudulent. That should trigger large scale audits and investigations into its business practices, but Facebook is on the side of angels in the cultural revolution, so its all good.

Probably the best example of our carny-barker economy is Tesla. To his credit, Musk has built a real factory that builds real cars. No one is going to say the Tesla is a work of art or even a practical car, but it is a car and the technology is impressive. The trouble is the company does not exist to make cars. It operates as a tax sink, where government subsidies flow into it and some portion of those subsidies turn into payments to the principles in the form of stock repurchases, debt service and compensation.

This only works if people think the venture will either one day turn a profit or the technology that it creates will result in something good down the road. To that end, Musk is regularly out doing his Lyle Lanley act, making all the beautiful people feel righteous by backing his ventures. He’s also telling Wall Street that he will soon be making and selling enough cars to turn a healthy profit, even without massive tax subsidies. The trouble is, that’s probably never happening, at least not with current management.

And then there was another article I read soon after - this time with the more usual glowing perspective.

Tesla has safety issues.

Elon Musk’s response to the issue is hailed as exemplary.

Then I thought about it, and I think Elon’s approach sucks.

At it’s core; here is his plan:

“Going forward, I've asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I'm meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.”

So in essence:

1. Knowing about the individual injury is very important to me as the CEO.

2. I will invest a significant portion of my team in a meeting discussion this.

So far, so good.

3. I am going to meet injured people personally. After you have been injured.

4. I am going to take your incident (sample of 1) and make sure that such an incident don’t happen again.

5. Then I am going to invest even more time by showing you I will get my hands dirty on the do the same job.

Items 3-5 are really problematic for me.

I appreciate that it (a) plays well for the layperson and casual observer, as well as (b) being likely to make the individual feel good and (c) may even mitigate the potential future claims. I get that.

But, here is the thing.

I think a CEO should be more proactive than this. It is great at managing feelings, but I am not sure it will fix the problem proactively.

There is no indication that by fixing everything on a case by case basis will actually ever address the systemic issues.

His approach does not scale.

If a workplace injury has the (pleasant, albeit unintended) consequence of getting the CEOs attention in addition to the time off and the compensation; I wonder if workers will really take the safety issue as seriously as they should?

If you get kissed by a pretty nurse every time you hit your thumb with a hammer, I reckon a few blokes may well be prepared to be a little bit more careless than they otherwise would be.

Safety is fixed on two levels:

  • Processes and systems  (that produce safe work)
  • A culture of taking responsibility, being diligent and looking out for yourself and your mates.

I am not sure that the path Elon is adopting is the quickest way to get any of that fixed.

This article is not so much about Elon. After all, how much can you know about a person from two articles. The more salient take out for readers are this:

There is always another perspective.

Read and learn constantly - things always change.

An open mind is not one that is easily persuaded; but one that is open to consider the facts, and to change a view based on new facts.

Don’t believe everything you read.

Be prepared to go against the popular narrative.

Changing your view is often as a result of the cognitive dissonance, which is not a pleasant experience. But if the Emperor has no clothes on, the Emperor is naked; and that will be a fact and should be called as such.

(Image from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/