"Before Rust came, the plant manager hid behind a locked door. Rust not only flung it open, he mingled with line workers and asked union reps for ideas. It was a rational but radical shift (from) a previous culture, where management made decisions and workers—who often knew a better way—lived with the consequences."

— Donn Esmonde, News Columnist, The Buffalo News, May 2, 2010

 

Unleashing Human Energy Through Culture Change: From a Toxic Culture to a High Performance Organization by Don L. Rust, a former General Motors plant manager and Alan G. Weinstein, an organizational psychologist, addresses the powerful role that corporate culture plays in the success of any business. 

In their book, the authors discuss the key factors that create a dysfunctional corporate culture and introduce useful concepts like industrial warfare, industrial depression, and bully management. In addition, they address why they believe that any company interested in achieving meaningful culture change – change that unleashes the full productivity potential of its employees – must embrace such fundamental values as faith, trust and respect. 

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Don and Alan also illustrate the transformational power of corporate culture change by telling the story of what Don accomplished when he became plant manager at GM’s troubled engine plant in Tonawanda, NY. The story not only dramatically illustrates the impact of that power, but also moves the authors’ thinking on the subject beyond the abstract and theoretical.

As they recount, when Don became the plant manager, the workforce was disgruntled, disengaged, and unmotivated. In addition, the UAW local and management could not agree on a labor contract for the plant, an impasse that exacerbated the workers’ negative feelings toward their jobs and their superiors. In fact, the situation was so bad that the Tonawanda plant was on the verge of being shut down due to low productivity. 

Prior to becoming the plant manager it had become clear to Don that GM’s culture was seriously flawed and he had committed himself to improving the way the company treated its employees. That commitment was rooted in the values that were instilled in Don when he was growing up on a farm in the Midwest, values that guided his efforts to create a new employee-focused culture at the plant. Here are just a few examples of what Don did:

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  • Tried to spend time every day in some area of the plant, acknowledging workers, engaging them in conversation, listening to their concerns and ideas.
  • Made workers’ jobs more interesting by using teams, changing routines and by giving workers more flexibility and autonomy on the job.
  • Let his management team know that he would not tolerate bully management and shared his “servant leadership” management style with them. That style engages workers as partners through training, coaching and joint problem solving and makes certain that workers have the resources they need to do their jobs.  
  • Included workers in important decisions
  • Encouraged management and workers to celebrate holidays. For example, Don had his managers organize, staff and serve a full-course Thanksgiving meal to all of the workers every year.
  • Had business cards printed for each worker. 
  • Made workers part of the car sales and marketing team by establishing an employee sales team.
  • Initiated a public car show at the plant that allowed workers to show off the products they had made. The show became a popular annual event in the Buffalo area.  

As a result of Don’s efforts, employees and managers became partners, not adversaries, morale increased, employees became engaged and motivated, and the Tonawanda plant became GM’s top performing engine plant. Don also built a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship between GM management and the UAW. In recognition of what Don accomplished, he received the Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen award in 1993.

The changes Don fostered have had a profound and long-lasting impact on the Tonawanda plant. Thirty years later, it remains one of GM’s best-performing facilities. 

Unleashing Human Energy Through Culture Change is available in hardcover and softcover editions and as an ebook.

Unleashing Human Energy Through Culture Change: From a Toxic Culture to a High Performance Organization Arliss Publishing Company, July 2018; hardcover, ISBN: 9780-692-08620-9, $29.95; softcover, ISBN: 9780-692-12909-8, $17.95; e-book, AISN: B07FH7NBL1, $9.00 is available at all bookstores and online.

 

 
 

 
Once an investment in culture change has been made, it may take years before it has matured to a level where it is sustainable. Having reached this level, it can survive through the inevitable challenges that businesses face, including recessions, technological advances in both products and manufacturing, and changes in leadership and the workforce. A strong, positive culture can support any corporate strategy—except one: there is simply no way to accommodate a bottom-line-first strategy within the positive organizational culture we have been advocating in this book.
— From Unleashing Human Energy Through Culture Change: From a Toxic Culture to a High Performance Organization by Don L. Rust and Alan G. Weinstein