Technology geek, mission, and business ethics

The irony could not have been stronger. On my news feed, I saw that legendary Medtronic founder and technology geek Earl Bakken died at age 94. Then, just below, I spotted another headline reading, “Will Silicon Valley Ever Act Ethically?”

For 12 years as the leader of human resources for various Medtronic business divisions, I would kick off the new hire orientation by presenting the Medtronic Mission and the values that  Earl Bakkan first put to paper during a time of financial crisis for Medtronic. Although the company had invented  an implantable pacemaker in 1961, the commercialization process drained its cash flow and the start-up needed more money. Medtronic’s board asked Earl for a business plan. Rather than the 200-page business plan the board expected, Earl Bakkan gave them the Medtronic Mission on a half sheet of paper. His “Mission” — to use advances in technology, to be the benchmark for high quality, to recognize the personal worth of employees, and to contribute to human welfare by alleviating pain, restoring health, and alleviating pain — still thrives today.

If you worked at Medtronic’s Minneapolis headquarters in the 1970s, Earl Bakken would have greeted you at the cafeteria handing out Medtronic Mission cards and asking for a minute of your time to talk about The Mission. He believed that if everyone understood The Mission, Medtronic would be a trusted company and thrive.

Trust became a critical calculus for Medtronic business leaders. As former Medtronic CEO Art Collins told me and frequently told Medtronic employees, he never lost sleep over the fear of Medtronic having a bad financial quarter. He lost sleep for fear of a substantial and preventable quality issue that would ruin the trust of doctors, hospitals and patients. That would be catastrophic.

Medtronic CEOs from Bill George and Art Collins in the 1990s and 2000s to Omar Ishrak today remind employees that living The Mission is everyone’s duty. I saw this commitment first hand at Medtronic’s Tempe campus in the 2000s when I served as its HR leader. General Manager Gordon Steere spoke about the Mission at every quarterly all-employee meeting and he also  invited patients with a Medtronic devise or employees who lived the Mission to present at the meetings.

The culture created by the Medtronic Mission heightened acuity among employees for patient welfare. This vigilance is best explained by this example. One of our assemblers on inspection duty peered through her microscope to do her quality check. Every weld on the hybrid board passed inspection. However, the operator saw what she described as a tiny spec of “green ooze” on a corner of the board. She had never seen that before. She and all operators had the power to stop the line and call the supervisor and engineer over to review what she saw. Her caution started a six-week investigation uncovering that a supplier had changed a chemical compound without telling us to avoid the required safety testing.

Even though this product needed to be restocked on hospital shelves and the lack of re-stocking meant the possibility of missing the financial quarter, Medtronic would not proceed with further production until it completed the investigation and could only ship safe product. Medtronic stuck to its ethics and values. It held to the Mission and maintained the trust of its investors, customers, and patients.

Being trustworthy can be done while also being a fierce competitor, an innovator, and having strong financial controls. Medtronic remains a top investment more than 60 years since its founding and has a market cap of $126 billion.

To my friends in Silicon Valley, I encourage the disruption of monopolist industries that overcharge consumers for services or products and block transparency. I understand the importance of using digital technologies to improve the speed and accuracy of administration and to collect and analyze data. I appreciate Artificial Intelligence’s ability to find unknown correlations between events and data sets to improve science, technology, business intelligence, and healthcare.

To be fair to Silicon Valley, it is not the only corner of the business world that needs this reminder. Wall Street, Hollywood, and companies such as Volkswagen and Wells Fargo have lost their way with trust and consumer confidence.

I remind all CEOs that if you violate consumer or customer trust, it damages your bottom line. Once broken, trust is hard to repair. Once broken, consumer and investor confidence are hard to win back.

In a world when our politics and national discussion lacks civility, when consumers are warned that if a service is free you are the product, when a lack of ethics lead to damaging product substitutions, our leaders need to ask about the ethical and values checks on their decisions. Our leaders need to ask whether their decisions violate the trust of investors, consumers, and the public.

A 94-year-old technology geek and inventor — who favored plaid shirts and loved the idea of contributing to human welfare — has something to teach us even upon his passing.

 

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, using digital technology to improve recruiting and retention, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Visit http://www.victorhrconsultant.com for more insights and his valuable free reports.

 

 

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