What Can Automotive Learn From “Tiger King”?

Monday, May 4, 2020

#Functional Safety    #Management Consulting    #Team Integration

In the midst of this sheltering-in-place, Netflix NFLX and other streaming services have seen an 85% increase in revenue. Among the highest programs watched during this “How on God’s Green Earth do I occupy another seven hours” period is the bizarre documentary series (a.k.a. docuseries) entitled, “Tiger King”, which follows a few different, sparring big cat zoos and/or shelters as they battle through drugs, violence and multiple felonies. It is akin to watching a train wreck in mid-collision: rubbernecking seems abhorrent and distasteful but human nature compels the masses to witness.

There are multiple lessons for any viewer regardless of profession or walk of life. For instance, there are people who eat expired meat from WalMart WMT(who knew?!), there was sound logic behind the forefathers’ creation of an Electoral College, and that establishing a preponderance of the evidence is only possible if evidence is collected in a timely manner. Possibly the largest lesson of all is the subtle, quasi-suggestion of creating a COVID-19 stimulus bill centered around the mental health industry.

All of that said, there are some actual, applicable lessons to the real world (*as opposed to the unreal world) that the show’s melodramatic examples help to emphasize:

Lesson #1: Worry About Safety First:

 There are times during the series where the audience cannot help but squirm in their chairs or slap their collective foreheads in utter amazement of the lack of attention to safety. There are multiple animal attacks which result in several near-hospitalizations (e.g. men being dragged around a cage by a tiger), two maulings, two amputations and one (human) death. In almost every instance, a quiet unanswered question is “Why wasn’t that preventable?” followed by, of course, the breathless answer of “A sheer lack of thinking ahead.” 

The same is true for automotive and other complex design industries. There are 30-50 million vehicles recalled every year with an estimated 57 million unfixed vehicles driving around the U.S. alone. Why weren’t those blunders avoidable? A good question. Many likely were, but frequently projects are sourced late, development is kicked-off prior to upfront activities like “Creating a Safety Plan” (a.k.a. Functional Safety), and problems accumulate. Therein, many defects are introduced, the whole development team gets behind, and problems slip out the door because of unyielding deadlines and … yup, not looking ahead.

The solution: create a forcing function to address the Functional Safety upfront. If this seems impossible, ask Takata about their airbags and whether skipping crucial steps worked out for them.

Lesson #2: Leadership Needs to Be on the Same Team

The boss of the highlighted G.W. Zoo was Joseph Allen [Schreibvogel] Maldonado-Passage or “Joe Exotic”, and there are many nouns which could accurately describe him (e.g. musician, zookeeper, showman, gubernatorial candidate, internet personality) but leader would be a questionable choice.  By the end of the first season, Joe has been convicted of seventeen (17) federal crimes and sits in a jail cell claiming he has been framed by someone on the G.W. Zoo’s payroll. Additionally, the zoo’s brand suffered and the inheriting management has needed to create remedies (e.g. rebrand, relocate, disassociate).

For those who are thinking there’s no clear parallel story in automotive, it only takes two words to refute that: Carlos Ghosn (the former chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance). Yes, Bill Ford Jr. might be the [Detroit] Lion King (sorry … bad pun), but Ghosn has claimed from behind bars of being framed by former allies, has been indicted for multiple federal crimes, and has watched as his former brand has suffered in the wake. True, Ghosn hasn’t changed his names multiple times, but the hide-in-musical-equipment escape of the exotically-nicknamed executive (“Le Cost Killer”) seems no less Tiger-King-esque than any scenario from the docuseries. 

These are the extreme examples. There are many less-publicized examples of leadership and the underlying team getting off the same page with unwanted consequences (e.g. prior to COVID-19, 33% of all employees planned to quit in the next 12 months with 43% already looking). How to avoid this? Recognize that people genuinely are a corporation’s greatest asset and make the time to truly listen. Minimally that will create an improvement in morale, but can lead to removing impediments, brainstorming new products and increasing credibility. As summarized in the appropriately-named book Fierce Conversations, leaders can begin change “one conversation at a time”.

Lesson #3: Get the User Experience Right & Premium Pricing is Possible

Before seeing the closing credits where additional federal investigations were revealed, viewers might consider Kevin “Doc” [Mahamayavi Bhagavan] Antle the genius of the lot (*not a high chinning bar, though). Even if unintentional – which is certainly arguable – he used caged-wildlife as a quasi-aphrodisiac, architected a near-cult environment bordering on polygamy and charged top dollar for a unique experience tailored for different audiences and their associated wallets. How top is top dollar? Try nearly $1400 per family of four for a 3-hour walking tour, nearly $14,000/person for a 10-day excursion and an untold fortune for a VIP package that includes swimming with tiger cubs. And, oh by the way, those prices were before “Tiger King” went viral. Not bad, especially for a guy who reportedly never even finished high school.

How does this relate to automotive? That same Premium Pricing can be realized if the product or services are differentiated, i.e. they cannot be easily purchased elsewhere. The Tempkin Group showed that companies already earning over $1 billion annually could add an additional $700 million within three (3) years of investing in customer or user experience. And, in fact, there are already suppliers out there charging enviable margins for the likes of turbochargers (or the engineering thereof) and, despite it being a multi-billion dollar industry on its own, the competition remains limited.

Why? These companies have figured out how to make the User Experience unique and, therein, create stickiness and Premium Pricing. It could be reengineering the component to fit within the complex regulatory needs and the congested engine compartment, it could be reducing noise for the end customer, or it could be creatively supplying aftermarket parts as needed. Whatever the needs of their customers or customers’ customers, these companies have invented ways to satisfy them and, therein, cash in.

Luckily, that doesn’t include being torn to pieces by wild animals (a.k.a. cash out).

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