2018-10-15 Issue 72 Fundamental Behavior 17 Practice Blameless Problem-Solving
Alan Mulally, described by Wikipedia as “an American engineer and business executive,” left the role of CEO at Boeing and became President and CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2006. Little did he know at the time that he was about to face the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and a cataclysm for the American automobile industry. During the financial crisis, virtually all the major US car companies were asking for loans from the federal government. At that time, all of the car company CEOs were summoned to Washington DC to explain their situation, including Mulally. I distinctly remember watching a Senate panel on TV question each CEO in a row, one by one, and ask, “If we give you the loans, will you commit to reducing your salary to one dollar?” One by one they shrugged their heads and said “yes”; that is, until they got to Mulally. When they asked Mulally the same question he stares them straight in the eyes with confidence and says, “No, I think I’m good where I’m at!” and the room goes silent, lol. Why could Alan Mulally make such a statement to a Senate panel? He could say it because Ford Motor Company did not need nor ask for a government bailout! I won’t bore you with all of the details leading up to this point except to say that by the time Mulally left Ford in 2014 he had been credited with not only saving the company from bankruptcy but for having Ford come out of the crisis stronger than any other car company in the United States, a strength that persists to this day.
So what does all of this have to do with this week’s Fundamental Behavior? Mulally’s story is one that inspires me to this day because his leadership style was the epitome and a shining example of driving a corporate culture that learned to practice blameless problem solving. Not long after Mullaly arrived at Ford, he joined their weekly war room meetings in a room called the Thunderbird Room, a conference room where various area managers in sales and production would display all of the major corporate performance indicators on charts pasted on all four walls.
He recounts that he started to notice that, week after week, all of the charts showed “green” indicators, suggesting that everything was great and there were no problems in the business. However, he was profoundly aware that the business was not in good health; sales were sluggish, their share price was weak, and they had no cash reserves in the bank. He found the weekly presentation of positive indicators curious and finally directed the teams not to keep showing their green charts, he wanted to see the ones with the red ink indicators on them. You see, Mulally knew that the only way to make Ford a better company than it was before he got there was to create an environment in which team members could openly discuss their issues and challenges without fear. Only then could they start to have meaningful dialogue on what the problems were and to collectively work on solutions. He later recounted that the change didn’t occur overnight yet slowly but surely the chart colors shifted to more red over time, and he thanked them for it. The rest is history, and today Ford remains among the most admired and successful USA automobile makers.
Now, the story I share is one that may have occurred with a CEO at Ford. However, successful companies do not live, breathe, and operate out of board rooms. The greatest of companies thrive on the day-to-day human interactions that take place among peers and internal and external customers. These interactions and the situations that arise are not always perfect or pleasant. But one thing I can assure you is that if you practice blameless problem solving in your professional and personal life, not only are you more likely to reach a better outcome, you will be a happier person and see more smiling faces in our offices and in your life. And how can that not be a good thing?
President YKK AP America