Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Kearns & ed

ON a warm and balmy afternoon in May 1980, about 3,000 Xerox employees gathered under a 1,000sq metre circus tent in their parking lot in Rochester, New York, to listen to an address by the then new CEO, David Kearns.

Some of the objectives of that day were - to congratulate some staff on jobs well done, to inform employees about the health and future of Xerox. (Incidentally, during the late 1970s, Xerox’s business began to feel the tremendous onslaught from the cheaper and better Japanese copiers that were flooding the US Market.)

And also, senior Management wanted to be more sensitive to the issues, and problems on the minds of their employees. "We saw this as a two-way sharing opportunity," says Sam Malone, who, as training and employees services (staff) manager, planned the meeting. (Later, Sam became the worldwide marketing manager for Xerox Quality Solutions.)

After the usual address from the CEO and speeches that sounded like the standard corporate stuff we have all heard before, the session mored on to the question & answer period.

It started, again, with the standard polite questions. Slowly things got heated up.

CEO Kearns and his top brass soon found out what at least one gutsy employee was thinking.

Tough, Honest Question

FRANK Enos, an hourly union production worker, stood up and gave it straight to the top brass about a poorly performing product CEO Kearns had talked about earlier.

Addressing David Kearns directly, Frank said, "If you had ever bothered to come down and talk to the people like us who made that poorly performing product, we could have told you ‘it was no good’. And we also could have told you why."

Suddenly, silence. More than 3,000 pairs of eyes were on Frank Enos, the hourly union production worker.

Many senior managers were uncomfortable in the seats - we all can understand that. Slowly some whispers were heard. As the crowd waited with gut-wrenching anxiety or anticipation David Kearns broke the heavy silence.

While David spoke softly his voice was sincere, humble but strong. Eyeball to eyeball, David spoke directly to Frank: "You’re absolutely right. I didn’t do that." David paused.

Silence again filled the warm air at the Xerox head office parking lot. David then declared, (looking first at Frank Enos, and then turning to look at the others, managers and workers alike), "We will not launch a product again until I have walked the production line". From that moment on the Q & A session went beautifully. Much was achieved in that afternoon.

And when the 3,000 or so employees left the meeting, many of them felt hopeful and optimistic again.

National Quality Award

THE David/Frank encounter turned out to be one of the most dramatic in Xerox’s long history.

"The message Kearns sent out there was: If you bring us bad news, we (top management) won’t shoot you," Malme says. "Be responding the way he did, Kearns sent the powerful signal that he, the new CEO appreciated the real value of involving employees in the business."

In 1989, David Kearns received the coveted Malcolm Boldrige National Quality Award on behalf of Xerox.

"That meeting in May 1980 helped pave the way for the Baldrige award, and Kearns never forgot Enos’s contribution," says Sam Malone.

NOTE: The above anecdotes were adapted from a World Executive’s Digest (June 1996) article entitled The Best Meeting I Ever Ran by Geoggrey Brewer of Performance magazine.

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