Elon Musk is in the business of revolutionizing and reinventing industries. He makes it look easy--most of the time. It's not magic, though. It's often smart, emotionally driven, scientifically informed management. The journey has taken him through ecommerce, where he made his first fortune with PayPal, through launching a new American car company, reinventing roofing with solar, and revamping space flight. He's also got strong starts in reinventing manufacturing, trucking, and safer artificial intelligence.

This soaring list of accomplishments comes with a searing list of growing pains.

A recent report from nonprofit Worksafe found that Tesla's Fremont plant has more annual injuries than the average auto plant. To put it in perspective, over the last three years, the Worksafe report found 8.8 injuries per 100 workers, compared to 6.7 for the automobile manufacturing industry as a whole.

Managing through growing pains

Over the same time period, Tesla's production increased from 31,655 cars delivered in 2014 to 25,000 delivered just in Q1 2017. That's tripled production. As you can imagine, the growing team at Tesla is under relentless pressure. Musk himself, in an email to factory workers in February, called out the stakes:

The forces arrayed against us are many and incredibly powerful. This is David vs Goliath if David were six inches tall! Only by being smarter, faster and working well as a tightly integrated team do we have any chance of success. We should never forget the history of car startups originating in the United States: dozens have gone bankrupt and only two, Tesla and Ford, have not.

Now, some of Tesla's own team feels like David trying to tackle Goliath. They're hurting. Worksafe's numbers, requested by a general assembly worker interested in bringing the plant into the United Auto Workers Union, are at odds with Tesla's calculations. In February, before the report came out, Musk was urging the team to report issues and make safety a priority. His email included this excerpt:

. . . since January 1st, our total recordable incident rate (TRIR) is under 3.3, which is less than half the industry average of 6.7.

Of course, the goal is to have as close to zero injuries as humanly possible, so we need to keep improving.

High stakes teambuilding

The United Auto Workers Union, UAW, has seen its membership drop from 1.5 million in 1979 to about 391,000 today. Its dues are approximately 2.5 hours of worker's pay per month. The average auto worker makes $28/hour and the UAW dues are around $3,000 a year. With Tesla stock compensation, after assuming a 4 year vesting period, an average Tesla auto worker makes around $100K more than her colleague in a similar role with Ford, GM or Chrysler. That's great pay--if you remain uninjured through your vesting period. Musk is an engineer famous for building teams that get the math right--like the brilliant physics behind SpaceX.

So how did he respond to the apparent gap in Tesla's incidence rate and the one Worksafe found?

Musk gets emotional

No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.

Rather than blame or explain, Musk cut to the core of the issue by underscoring his team's sacrifices and appreciating them in last week's email. It's a strong example of real world management in a real world problem. He then put himself in the cross hairs of the situation:

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.

Musk is doing what he has often done before when faced with a huge issue: put himself in the path of direct learning. That way, he gets more unfiltered data from the experience. He also called on his managers to act the same way and lead from the front, not the ivory tower. "Managers must always put their team's safety above their own," he wrote.

Recovered workers will have an opportunity to work directly with Musk on the issue that caused the injury. He's also taking his emotions over the safety concerns--heartbreaking--and transforming them into measurable, quantifiable actions. This is similar to how he manages fear by taking action.

What might happen if Musk takes on aspects of the daily life of a general assembly worker?

Labor could use some reinvention. The first American labor unions were formed in the 1880s. The last couple times Musk got frustrated with an inefficient status quo, he's boldly disrupted stale industries with fresh thinking led by science. A case in point is  SpaceX, which grew out of his frustration the outdated rocket industry when he tried to buy some. Another is the Boring company and Hyperloop. It may be part of the reinvention of American manufacturing, that labor is due for a lift along the way. There's no doubt this is going to get even more interesting before its gets over.

Published on: Jun 6, 2017
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