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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > If Volvo Can Do It Now, Why Not the Others?

Volvo, almost small enough to fit into GM’s hip pocket, has tweaked the beaks of the giant auto companies more than once with its innovations.

First with shoulder-style seat belts, Volvo pro­ceeded to prove through a study of 60,000 accident reports that they saved lives at the same time — in the late Sixties — that GM was fighting the instal­lation of these belts with spurious claims. Now Volvo announces that its 1978 six cylinder automobile will meet the federal air pollution standards that the domestic auto companies say they cannot meet until sometime in the 1980s. (The 1977 Volvo already meets these standards with its four cylinder vehicles.)

Volvo has even broken the auto industry’s silent code of not criticizing each other in public on policy issues. The Swedish upstart not long ago decried the domestic manufacturers’ repeated negativism regarding the alleged cost of federal safety standards as “aimed purely, at resisting regulations.”

THIS IS NOT to say that Volvo is uniformly the pacesetter; the firm has had its problems and myopias. But the company’s sometimes spirited performance suggests more than ordinary leader­ship. Which is why I looked forward to reading a little book that has just been written by the president of Volvo, Pehr G. Gyllenhammar. Titled “People at Work” (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass.), the book discusses, his philosophy of indus­trial management.

Most books by top corporate executives are as boring as eating sawdust without butter, to para­phrase an old English jurist. This ennui of print is due to the avoidance of candor, controversy and proper names by the authors. They know so much more than they put down on paper. What they write is often a mixture of tautology and banality.

Gyllenhammar’s book is certainly not an expose of the auto industry. It is a description of Volvo’s new ways of structuring the workplace for job en­richment, safety, and productivity. The company developed the “carrier” experiment where small groups of workers produce a vehicle, replacing the traditional moving assembly line model. An evalu­ation of this approach by Volvo found that nine out of ten workers want to take responsibility for the quality of the product.

For so young a man, Gyllenhammar — who be­came president of Volvo in 1971 when he was in his mid-thirties — goes beyond the workplace to dis­cuss the loss of human potential that is caused by large industrial and commercial organizations. He concedes that the immediate stimulus to the re thinking at Volvo was the need to reduce absentee­ism, and increase productivity and improve qual­ity. But he sets his sights on trying to make work enjoyable and challenging as a source of quality living in its own right rather than solely a means to an end.

THIS IS A tall order and will require more think­ing about the overwhelming domination of society, its culture and values, by the large corporation. Perhaps Gyllenhammar is foreshadowing his next book on the shortcomings of what he calls “super-scale organizations.” Sample some of his observa­tions:

“Big organizations simply do not welcome change; it disrupts their stability. Nor do they fos­ter new ideas about management, because change would influence the working routines .”

“You can make a corporation spend almost any amount of money these days on marketing or sales promotion without any evidence at all that the in­vestment will buy them anything.”

‘There are abuses in business, particularly in international business, because, multinational companies are in a position to play countries off against each other. A few companies have enor­mous power. They can, in isolated cases, endanger even governments by withholding necessary goods or involving themselves in local politics. At present, the largest international corporations are virtually unaccountable to anyone.”

Anyone who has spoken to movers and shakers in a particular industry knows that they harbor far more than they reveal. They may speak out comprehensively once, as did George Romney in the Fifties before the Senate antimonopoly committee, and then say little more.

Perhaps Gyllenhammar is just getting warmed’ up. If so, the public introspection that the corporate world so strongly needs will receive an adherent of considerable experience and horizon.