ONE SCHOOL OF THOUGHT, TWO DIFFERENT CAREERS – Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of Volkswagen AG (right), and ESA astronaut Hans Wilhelm Schlegel share a passion for scientific analysis combined with hands-on expertise. This enabled Schlegel to go into space and Winterkorn to become head of a global corporation.
The following features the highlights from this exchange of views. Among other things, Martin Winterkorn and Hans Wilhelm Schlegel talked about ...
... The courage to aim high:
PROF. DR. MARTIN WINTERKORN: “You have to get people on board. Employees must believe in the ambitious goals their company sets. I can sense today that the entire Volkswagen team is behind the ‘Strategy 2018’ growth plan we began implementing a good three years ago. This applies not just to our workforce in Germany but equally to our plants in Mexico, Brazil and China – employees everywhere know what we are aiming to achieve by 2018: to be the number one in terms of quality and customer satisfaction, to be the best employer, to sell over ten million cars a year and to generate a pre-tax return on sales of over eight percent for the Group. It’s not just about size, but about becoming the most forward-looking automotive group in the world. To begin with, some people felt that this vision was too daring, but we’re already demonstrating we can make it happen.”
HANS WILHELM SCHLEGEL: “The best example of the power of aiming high is the announcement made by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961: ‘We Americans want to fly to the moon.’ An extremely ambitious but ultimately successful project that we might no longer be able to pull off today. The next goal was to ‘build and operate an international space station.’ We are in the eleventh year of the construction process and are nearing completion. Without these crystal-clear goals we would not have been able to win over the many thousands of people who were involved. Even the soundest arguments will go unheard if you forget to motivate and captivate people, and to communicate the logic behind the project in such a way that everyone is able to follow your arguments intuitively.”
WINTERKORN: “I find transparency and communication important. Every year, we organize a management conference in Dresden with over 2,000 participants from all over the world. Here, we examine our present position and how far we have progressed towards achieving our goals. After this event, every manager – from Shanghai to Kaluga – knows where things stand. They channel the information into their respective plants, so that all company employees end up being involved. In 2005, we produced 5.2 million cars in a year; that figure is now in the region of 7.4 million. Our employees recognize what great progress we are making and that fuels their enthusiasm. In spite of this, we may never allow ourselves to rest on our laurels. We must remain on the offensive.”
... The specific way they approach things:
WINTERKORN: “As a scientist, you learn to dig deeper and deeper. The Volkswagen Group is so successful today because this notion of ‘digging deeper’ has become part of our corporate culture. It helps us to make our cars better and better. I firmly believe that an automotive company must be product-led. As an automotive manager, it is not enough simply to enjoy driving cars – you have to understand them right down to every last detail. Many things in our Group today only work because my Board of Management colleagues and I are extremely well versed in all aspects of the business. If developers say that a solution is not possible from a technical, timing, or financial point of view, I am able to challenge them. And everyone knows that.”
SCHLEGEL: “As scientists, we are never content with what we already know. And we always expect the unexpected. When faced with unforeseen occurrences and circumstances, you have to be constantly willing to put your favorite theory to
WINTERKORN: “Exactly. Probability theory states that, if an event can occur with a certain probability, then it will occur at some point. As a manufacturer of highly complex vehicles, we must always expect the unexpected – be it in development, production, or service. Operating errors must also be taken into account – for instance, the possibility that a customer might apply the brake pedal and the gas pedal at the same time. In this case, the brakes must always take priority. We sell well over seven million cars a year. If there is a fault somewhere, even a tiny one, it will manifest itself sooner or later. We must find the fault before that happens and
SCHLEGEL: “In astronautics, we also have to prepare very intensively for exceptional situations like this. In fact, around 95 percent of astronauts’ training is centered on this. The important thing is to think ahead and to act accordingly – I imagine it is exactly the same at Volkswagen. It is a question of taking decisions early based on the available knowledge and resources and being aware that everybody will have to live with these decisions. In space travel, you can’t extend or change the course of the mission at will. The Americans say that you should “always try to stay in the middle of the envelope” – only then is there enough room to make corrections to the right