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Your Cheating But
Issue #26 of The Two But Rule---
Hey everyone! Back from a terrific holiday and birthday, just finished the first big manuscript milestone for the publisher, and we’re reviewing cover art. If you have stories you’d like to see make it into The Two But Rule book, reach out now!
Sneaky Clever Buts
Any professional con artist knows the value of the Two But Rule. When presented with something seemingly impossible in the physical universe we occupy, a definitive “But that won’t work,” there is always the option for sleight of hand.
Captain Kirk’s Unbeatable But
And this isn’t just an enticing choice for crooks. It’s a lesson Star Trek’s Captain Kirk applied when faced with the dreaded ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test, an ordeal designed to present a captain with a no-win scenario in order to teach a lesson about facing failure and death. Kirk’s answer to the test? “BUT we could cheat.” Which is what he did in multiple reboots of the Star Trek franchise, secretly reprogramming the test to allow him to beat it.
Even when presented with a powerful second but—“But if you cheat death, you will not learn to face it”—a handy plot device provides Kirk with another but: BUT he can learn to face death by watching his friend Spock die … and later we can bring Spock back to life, win-win.
Volkswagen’s Cheating But
That’s how it works in the movies. In the real world the, “BUT we could cheat,” option usually represents a failure to think a problem through, or at least a failure to think laterally. Volkswagen learned this the hard way.
Between 2005 and 2007, the US announced stringent new automobile emissions standards. These required that by 2010 diesel vehicles had to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 93 percent, from 1 gram per mile to .07 grams. At the same time, Volkswagen was eagerly expanding into the US market with diesel vehicles. There were technical solutions that would allow diesel engines to comply with the standard, but they all came with compromises.
For example, selective catalytic reduction technology used a urea solution to break down NOx into nitrogen and water, but it required extra space for the tank holding the urea, and customers had to refill it periodically.
Asking customers to bear the cost and trouble of filling their car essentially with pee does seem like a legitimate concern.
Volkswagen chose a different solution called a lean NOx trap (LNT). This had its own tradeoffs, and chief among them was that Volkswagen engineers couldn’t find a way to make it reduce emissions enough to comply with the standard. BUT … yeah, they could cheat.
Between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen sold roughly 500 thousand diesel cars in the US, claiming that they met the standard thanks to innovative engineering. And that was true. The innovation, however, wasn’t in finding a way to make LNTs work. It was in figuring out a way to detect when the car was going through emissions tests and set the LNT to minimize pollutants, while emitting 40 times the legal limit under normal driving conditions.
Volkswagen applied the laziest form of the Two But Rule: “But we can’t meet the standard, BUT we could fool the test.” If they had bothered to do more than one round of Momentum Thinking, they might have concluded what manufacturers like Mercedes Benz already had: “But getting caught is very likely (3But), BUT we can combine several technologies to comply with the standard while minimizing customer inconvenience (4But).”
As it turned out, Mercedes Benz and others discovered that US customers buying diesel were environmentally conscious, so the additional emissions devices were a selling point. Mercedes saw strong sales in the years after implementing the changes.
Volkswagen’s deception came to light in September 2015 with massive impacts to the company’s finances and market reputation. They posted a $1.8 billion loss in 2016, their first loss in 20 years. They had to cover billions in fines and vehicle buybacks. CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned, and one executive went to jail…so far.
Admittedly, the challenges Volkswagen faced in complying with the new standard were formidable. Technical solutions didn’t materialize, not ones that didn’t involve what management considered to be unacceptable tradeoffs. If they had, it would have been a simple round of the Two But Rule:
“We have to comply with the new standard, BUT we can use our new magic diesel catalytic converter that is cheaper, reduces fuel consumption, makes the car go faster, and gives the air around it a minty fresh scent.”
Gnarly problems like this require not only a mastery of running multiple rounds of Momentum Thinking but managing multiple dimensions of it, so that solutions can present themselves across different lateral lines of thought. That’s what allowed other manufacturers to take a different path. They said, “But it will cost more, BUT we have customers that will pay for it, if they understand how it aligns with their values.”
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