Scaling Social Responsibility to Overcome the COVID-19 Crisis

Scaling Social Responsibility to Overcome the COVID-19 Crisis

Former consultant Max Viessmann offers his reflections on his family-owned company’s purpose, its adaptability to pivot an entire production line to help fight the pandemic, and the BCG learnings that shape his management principles today.

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Viessmann Group shifted its primary production line from heating systems to manufacturing ventilators and mobile intensive care units. As the company’s CEO, how did you prepare for and lead the production of important medical equipment and devices to help fortify Germany’s fight against the pandemic?

I relied on the traditional strengths of our company. We have been adapting to changing circumstances and leading from within for more than 100 years. The company is a living embodiment of its values and mission, and our purpose is to create living spaces for generations to come. COVID-19 is the most immediate challenge that we are facing. Our purpose sets the tone for our actions in the fight against the disease and it involves the entire larger Viessmann family looking for ways to contribute to overcoming this issue.

Fighting the current pandemic requires cohesion, team spirit, and creativity to make the best out of the challenging situation. I am extremely proud to see these qualities every day. It was the idea of one of our own family members to manufacture these products and to put together a team specifically for purpose.

Of course, we also worked together closely with doctors from the Luisenhospital, the academic teaching hospital of the medical faculty of the RWTH Aachen University, other hospitals, and Professor Dr. Dirk Müller from the E.ON Energy Research Center at RWTH Aachen University to develop these products and ensure they fulfill all necessary requirements. You can say that this is our company’s DNA in action—evolving as the situation demands to provide a safe living space for as many people as we can reach.

Automotive companies are attempting to produce ventilators and respiratory equipment but are facing difficulties in converting their applications for medical use on humans. At Viessmann, how are you prototyping and testing your products while adapting to demand at a fraction of the time you would normally have?

Once we decided to venture into the production of ventilators, we moved very fast. We first had to understand the requirements of the physicians on the basic functionalities of such a device. So, we facilitated a workshop with doctors and other experts, as mentioned above. While developing the prototype there was a continuous circle of feedback and immediate implementation. This process saved us considerable time. As we could use our own software and hardware components, in contrast to automotive companies, we had everything we needed from the beginning. The components are the same ones we use in our wall-mounted gas boilers and our production lines are very flexible, so we were able to adjust the one line as needed very easily.

You lead your family-owned company with social responsibility in mind. How has your BCG experience contributed to a skill set that allows for flexibility and adaptability, especially when that adjustment influences the greater good?

I think being a consultant prepares you very well for being a servant leader, and this philosophy forms the basis of my management principles. The clients’ needs are always put first. Their problem is your problem, so you think and act in a very customer-centric way, understanding exactly what is needed in any service, product, or solution. For one, this makes you a good leader because everything isn’t about you all the time, and second, you can directly transfer the customer-centric approach to the solution offering to everyone in your own company.

Social responsibility has always been part of the Viessmann approach from the very beginning. We take this responsibility for our 12,300-member family worldwide, society at large, and the planet itself very seriously. Therefore, we have focused on mobile solutions—mobile intensive care units and ventilators that can operate off many oxygen sources, because we understand that the hardest hit in this crisis will probably not have access to a comprehensive medical infrastructure. We aspire to work with everyone in mind.

Flexibility is of course a prerequisite for being a good consultant, as circumstances, strategies, or needs can change overnight. You need to be flexible to adjust, but at the same time you cannot be a pushover. Stand by your work, even if it gets questioned.

You’ve mentioned that the way we deal with the crisis today will determine how we remember this time in the future. What are your hopes for the immediate future while COVID-19 is impacting our lives and livelihoods?

We have realized that this crisis will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone. There is no halfway solution. Challenges uncover who we really are, and we already see so much support, a renewed sense of community, and a greater commitment to others, not only in the Viessmann family, but also throughout society. This has unleashed a great deal of creativity and innovation that will help us overcome these challenging times. I hope that we will be able to keep this spirit alive—even after the pandemic is over.

I also think many people have learned to appreciate the little things again, to value what we have, and that sometimes we don’t really need everything we thought we did. This is especially important when it comes to protecting our planet. I hope some of this thinking will stick.