How Kingsford Charcoal Taught DuPont a Thing or Two about Employee Engagement
People say never to judge a book by its cover, and it rings very true in corporate settings. All employees up and down the ranks are guilty of allowing superficial observations and subjective personal preferences drive their judgment, often unconsciously. Their internal perceptions always color reality, and obscure the truth that can often lie right in front of them. This is an issue we address in our own human development work under the banner of “the Pursuit of Truth” and it is the hardest change in mindset we must make in working with senior executives in honing their leadership skills.
We recently found a great example of rigid mindsets preventing people from seeing the truth about a situation in a book excerpt posted on Strategy and Business, the Booz and Company blog.
“We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
The column, Our Own Worst Enemies, focused on how blindered managers can be about situations that don’t match their preconceptions, even if they claim to be open-minded and ready to “hear the truth.”
[Here is the article link. Registration is required (and recommended!)]
As S&B columnist Louis Carter writes, “even executives who are open to outside approaches can fall prey to another, equally insidious error: They sometimes assume that best practices can come only from big, well-known companies that look and act like their own companies.”
The excerpt this article shares is from a book called The Responsible Business by Carol Sanford. Her example is so great because it is so stark. In it, DuPont plant managers were invited to tour a Kingsford charcoal plant and offer advice on improving safety.
“I once brought a group of senior managers from the DuPont facility to visit the Kingsford charcoal plant in Belle, Missouri. The contrasts were so extreme they were comical…The DuPont guys were well-dressed, button-down engineers in white shirts, walking through a plant covered in black dust being led by operators in t-shirts and red suspenders.”
The DuPont men were unimpressed by Kingsford and the managers they met, although they remained polite throughout the visit and very open to sharing their insights on safety. Afterwards, however:
“As we drove away the DuPont engineers gave me a dressing down,” writes Sanford. “Why did you bring us to such a backward place?” they wanted to know. “We thought you said we’d learn something here!” They catalogued everything they saw wrong with the facility, including that the plant manager had not even bothered to attend.”
A short time later, the Kingsford managers requested a meeting to share all that they had done based on the DuPont men’s advice. What an eye-opener for the DuPont side! You can read the article for more details, but the rough-hewn Kingsford group had accomplished a lot in a short time, leaving the DuPont men to ask questions like:
“How [must] the Kingsford business have operated to have internalized and changed its systems so rapidly and completely?”
“I can’t imagine how you design a work system so that you can have a couple hundred people in a month change how they are working. I’d like to learn how you design that.”
“I don’t understand how you could build a whole safety system from the bottom up, without the plant manager having mandated it. I now want to understand that.”
“I don’t understand how the two men standing in front of me could make the technological, organization, and production changes needed without professional engineers to design them for them. I now want to understand that.”
The truth was, the Kingsford employees had their minds open and ready to accept views that didn’t agree with theirs. They were also fully engaged. As Sanford points out, the Kingsford manager let his supervisors lead the tour and ask all the questions, fully empowering them to take charge of the coming transformation. This led to a fully engaged workforce rapidly accomplishing a significant upgrade to safety procedures in a short time.
Faced with evidence, the DuPont men finally put aside their “preconceptions” and truly opened their eyes and ears to accept the truth, and saw how these down-to-earth Kingsford folks dressed in jeans, workshirts and suspenders could teach them a few things about seamless transformations and commitments to productive change!
Notes Carter, “Best practices can be found in surprising places, and the most valuable practices may come from companies that are most unlike your own. In fact, it’s the application of practices from other industries and entirely different companies that often leads to the biggest competitive advantage.”
Only when they truly commit to the pursuit of truth in all interactions, inside and outside the company, can corporate leaders truly uncover all the competitive opportunities and advantages available to them.
Let us know if you have similar stories to tell! We would love to share them here.