A Simple Creative Design

THE CHALLENGE

The small steel manufacturing company had always had good relations with its workers. The first generation German owners were paternal (turkeys at Thanksgiving to the workers and other occasional signs of their humanity). But, it was a command and control environment – do your work, do as you’re told, don’t ask questions and you can be happy here. 

The young workers wanted more say. They questioned their bosses and, worse, the owners. Turkeys weren’t sufficient. There was a strike and the plant almost closed. The animosity was palpable. The owners were about to throw in the towel. We were asked to help open the lines of communication and to heal the wounds created by the strike. If something didn’t change it was only a matter of time before the company would end.

THE PROCESS

Something dramatic would have to happen to change the attitudes of the workers and the leaders. There was a “take no prisoners” attitude on both of their parts. The fear was that simply “talking” about their differences would result in further polarizing the participants.

TNG designed and facilitated a 3-day session offsite. We paired union reps and managers, and each pair was to take a list of questions created by the two groups and spend three hours interviewing constituents in an attempt to discover what might help to turn things around between hostile labor and belligerent management. Then, they were to organize their information, including what they believed could help bring their own groups together and share it with the larger group.

First, the act of interviewing and organizing the data helped the various partners to depend on each other, to risk mutually in a common task, to have fun, to begin dropping their doubts and suspicions. Second, there were many similarities recommended from the various pairs. Third, working from agreements, the tone and attitudes between the two groups changed dramatically.

THE OUTCOME

The union reps returned to the plant with a series of proposals already vetted with management. Passage was rapid. A standing management / labor committee resulted.

There has not been another strike in the intervening years. Every contract was successfully negotiated ahead of the required deadline. Our willingness to think out of the proverbial box had been key. Their willingness to risk setting aside their differences was critical.