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Making or Breaking Culture


In one of the best performing companies I have worked with it was within a very few hours of my arrival for my first visit that I heard the story.  A few years before the husband of a thirty plus year employee had been released by the doctors treating his cancer - sent home to die.  There was nothing more they could do for him.  The employee was nobody of note.  She had been a hard working assembler the whole thirty years.  She had never contributed any spectacular improvement ideas - she had just showed up for work every day and given the company her best effort.  When the CEO heard of her tragedy, he personally went out to the shop floor, put his arm around her and consoled her ... and sent her home, to stay there with full pay for as long as she needed to be with her husband until the end; a couple of months as it turned out.

The story became company legend.  Everyone in the place knew of it, and it was repeated for every new employee by someone or another.  It was significant because it demonstrated senior management walking the talk when it came to employees being their greatest asset.  The CEO truly appreciated the loyalty she had shown the company, and he honestly felt that standing behind her when she needed the company was a 'no brainer'.  He had not viewed it as a particularly noteworthy or difficult decision at the time.  I should mention that this was no mom and pop operation. It is a good sized outfit with better than a thousand employees and a few hundred million in sales.

Good companies have similar stories.  Employees commit to the company because they have seen the company commit to them.  Most noteworthy, these companies are not restricted by policy manuals, or fear of discrimination suits when it comes to doing the right thing.

There are other companies - too many of them - in which the primary role of HR seems to be to protect the company from its own employees.  In such places, the woman never would have been sent home.  HR would have warned the CEO that to do any special favors for her would create a precedent whereby every employee with an ill relative would demand the same treatment - and sue for discrimination if they were not granted the same.  HR would warn the CEO that every employee whose spuse had a head cold would demand time off with pay.  And the spineless CEO would have used such a warning as justification for doing nothing.  "I feel sorry for you - I really do, but if I were to show you any special consideration it would be unfair to the rest of the staff since we can't do it for everyone ... so sorry."

Such a company seems to be Crane Interiors in Tennessee.  Teresa Danford, a factory employee, had the unmitigated gall - the complete disregard for company policy - to take a cell phone call from Lance Corporal Mark Rhyne - her son who is serving in Afghanistan.  Her son can only call once a month or so when he gets access to a SAT phone. "'There is nothing in this world that would stop a mother from answering a phone call from her son and what if it was not my son? What if he'd been hurt and someone was trying to contact me?' asked Danford."

The company's reaction:  Three days off without pay even though it was her first violation of the policy, and a warning that if it happens again she will be fired.  Crane HR Manager Larry Officer explained that the policy is the policy - no exceptions, no ifs, ands or buts.  I can hear Larry now, explaining that if he overlooks Ms. Danford's violation he won't be able to discipline Joe Blow next week when he takes a cell phone call from his bookie ... typical bureaucratic HR blather. 

In fact, Larry, it would be quite easy. You tell Ms. Danford that everyone in management is happy to hear that her son is safe and well, and to please tell him how proud and grateful they are for his service to his country next time she hears from him.  Then you tell Joe Blow the company has a new rule - people with family members serving their country in harms way get to take SAT phone calls - and that he should be ashamed for daring to compare himself to Ms Danford; and that he gets three days off without pay, and if he wants to sue the company he is welcome to give it his best shot.  The company is willing to take its chances with the judge when all of the facts come out.  And even if they lose and have to give Joe back the three days pay, they will still do the same thing if it comes up again.

Whether Larry made this absurd decision, or if he is merely the front man for owners Larry Bicklin and Tom Evans, collectively they run the company with the sort of leadership one expects from the local DMV branch.  The whole lot of them should be thoroughly embarrassed, and they ought to give themselves three days off without pay. I am willing to bet that all three of them feel free to answer their cell phones whenever they please.

In the first company senior management creates a culture of loyalty and employee commitment because they are led by people who do not let policy, rules or the threat of legal repercussions get in the way of doing the right thing.  Fairness, decency and a genuine respect for employees as unique, whole people drive decision making - not policy manuals.  In companies such as Crane Interiors, excellence is unattainable because the employees Larry so diligently protects the company from will never take them there.

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7 Responses to "Making or Breaking Culture"

  • Jeff Holloway
    22 February 2011 - 9:51 am

    The PR fallout from this incident will cause Crane Interiors immeasurably more in lost sales than whatever production time they lost when Ms. Danford took that call. Typical myopic management. Every company needs to have a “Common Sense” policy along with their standard employee handbook.

  • Paul Todd
    22 February 2011 - 4:42 pm

    Excellent comparison of opposites Bill. An extreme case of following procedure can also be seen routinely in otherwise well-intentioned Zero Tolerance policies in our schools. These often cause (or allow) administrators to operate in a Zero Judgement zone instead. Interpreting the facts and making decisions is difficult work, but that’s what managers are paid for.

  • Martin_B
    23 February 2011 - 12:29 pm

    This morning on the radio I heard the female CEO of a factory say she joined a gym a couple of years ago. She felt so much better she asked her 170 workers if they were doing gym. No one. They are female textile workers, some in their 30s and 40s, and can’t afford it. Anyway they have no time when they get home.

    So the CEO installed gym equipment in the factory.

    Very few workers made use of it.

    So the CEO made gym compulsory — twice a week — and *paid* them extra for their gym time.

    Now everyone gyms, morale is better, productivity is up, and absenteeism down 70%.

    As the CEO said, “Don’t invest in the latest computers and stuff, invest in your staff.”

  • Jeff Adams
    23 February 2011 - 6:55 pm

    Very well said. Good point about the platitudes spouted about “people are our strongest asset”. You can not effect a culture change through sreadsheets. Walk the walk. Respect for people. Accomplish the mission, welfare of the troops. Great post.

  • Tim McMahon
    25 February 2011 - 6:25 am

    Bill, This is a great lesson in Real Lean and the Respect for People principle. Thanks for sharing it.


  • zeh
    2 March 2011 - 5:55 am

    I’m actually in shock. Not about the kind of crap bosses regularly distribute to workers to maintain discipline. I am shocked that you agreed to relegate something like taking calls while at work as a privilege to be granted by magnanimous employers. I am shocked that you so casually submit continuing to exist as people, even while at work, to company ‘policy’. You think that appealing to the sense of humanity of bosses is really the way forward? Profits before people as ever. Yeah! “go ahead and do the right thing IF it gets the profits up”. Allrighty. Thanks so much.


    Jeeeze Zeh. Lighten up! You might want to consider the possibility that there are legitimate safety concerns for having people yacking on the phone while operating machinery. An awful lot of states are passing laws preventing people from talking on cell phones while operating cars, after all. It just might be that someone could get hurt or killed as a result of paying attenton to the phone instead of the 100 ton press they are operating. Every work policy is not the demonic oppression of your God given rights – just some of them :)