How Blowing up a Factory Changed Jack Welch
I asked Jack Welch, at the World Business Forum 2011, to talk about tipping points in his life and he said, “I blew up a (GE) factory the first year I was there.” He was in his mid-twenties and figured his career was over.
“I was running a little pilot plant. It all exploded, went to hell.” (Pilot plant refers to testing. He experimented with a new formula and KaBoom.)
He went on to say, “I was called to New York because my boss didn’t know me anymore once I had that accident. So he sent me to New York to explain it to the higher-ups. I was thinking I was going to get fired. He called me in the room and asked me what did you do wrong. What have you learned.”
At this point, Jack’s tone and eyebrows rose. “He took the Socratic Method with me and did an incredible job of engaging me in learning about what I did wrong in the process. And I learned never kick anybody when they’re down. No one would ever say that I was soft by any means. But they would never say that I beat on anybody when they were down.”
Finally Jack added, “Tipping points (are) learning experiences from complete failures.”
When others fail?
- Learn. Those who know don’t fail. Those who don’t know, fail until they learn. Learning organizations embrace failure.
- Celebrate. Point out the good qualities that cause bad failures. For example, honor courage, curiosity, sincerity, and innovation.
- Encourage. Good people are hard on themselves. Encourage them when they fail.
- Explore. Was it taking too many risks? Dig into risk management. Was it overcommitting? Was it lack of resources or training?
- Discipline. Repeating the same mistakes calls for toughness.
How do you deal with others when they make mistakes?
More on mistakes: “Creating a Mistake-making Policy” — Perfect can’t be trusted. Successful companies learn how to do wrong, right.
Good post Dan. I think what you and Jack have described is a similar tipping point for most of us. It often happens when we come across someone in our lives who can help us walk through the mechanism of what has gone wrong and make it into a learning opportunity. It is a person that can see the good in almost any situation, and is confident enough to learn along with you.
We ourselves have to be alert enough to recognize these teaching moments when they are given to us and when we have an opportunity to bring others along. Most of us have been beaten down and beaten up so often that we stop learning and become defensive, thereby sabatoging ourselves.
There is something good in every situation.
Thanks for your comment. As I read, I kept thinking about the power of boss or person in authority to make a difference.
All of us need to remember the moments people are down are truly high potential moments.
Thanks Dan. It’s bosses, teachers, occasionally doctors, almost anyone. Most of us have unused opportunities to feed something positive into the life of another. To show them a different way to think, to give them a fresh prespective on a familiar problem, to turn a situation into a learning and growth opportunity.
I actually believe that leaders have to plan for failure. It’s part of learning, and if people never fail then you never really put them in a place where they could learn. Your and Welch’s points are on target. But everyone’s tendency is to quit after failure, so the leader’s role is to coach them through it and then put them back on the horse again. If you want to grow someone, you have to expect some failures from him or her.
“Tipping points (are) learning experiences from complete failures.”
Maybe even partial failures are the beginning of the portal for progress to be opening! Interesting perspective that is a challenge to maintain and perhaps counter to some management styles.
How do you deal with others when they make mistakes?
I think you made some great points today, Dan. #3 is true – finding that balance between helping a person who is hard on themselves figure out what they can do differently while keeping their morale up is definitely a leadership challenge.
It seems like many of my comments this week have ended up back at parenting, but … although I know I am guilty of it …. labeling a child or employee as “problematic” (i.e., you never focus (kid) or “she always tries to pawn her work off on someone else”) does no one any good. It’s a time/situation that definitely calls for some specificity about what the issue is and some mutual goal setting / exploration to prevent / reduce the issue in the future.
Great story Dan,
Once heard a similar story about a young executive who royally screwed up to the tune of about $500,000. He went to his boss with his resignation in hand. His boss asked “What’s this?” When learning of the resignation he refused to accept it stating “I just spent a half million dollars in your education – there’s no way I can afford to let you go now.”
Leaders think different.
Thanks Scott, great perspective. Don’t train them and then send them to the competition. Cheers, Dan
Great post! Loved it, gave me some ‘Tabasco’ to fire up my day.
However, how many employers are willing to ‘let’ you blow up whatever pilot plant you are working on? In many instances, you would be shown the door. And most probably the rear exit door. Many ‘leaders’ have become very intolerant to innovation, it rocks the boat too much.
When one thinks about the beating they’ll receive when they fall, then opt-out becomes the best option. Learning goes out through the window, and with it, the opportunity to FAIL FORWARD. The chance to become significant and make a difference.
Do we really repeat the same mistakes? The time-space continuum might suggest that is metaphysically impossible…and hopefully that we learned something each time we repeated similar mistakes.
The key for organization is to have courage, patience and enough trust in its people – to accept the failures as they do come with monumental cost and takes the organization few steps back. Once the trust is put in people – they respond positively often producing great results for the organization.
For start ups, this article is must read … for bigger organizations have much more capacity to take failure in stride – however for smaller and start ups – the initial failures – can complete break the company – not because of failure – but mismanagement of it ..
Considering the time context (had to be ‘1970’s or earlier by Welch’s age) this was a pretty unusal response! The management techniques of the day were more “off with their heads” than the more contemporary “learn from mistakes.” I tend to think that the economic pressures of our prsent society may push more managers to this tough minded sort of behavior (done in the name of “stakeholder value” of course!) I hope we have the strength to allow principle to be our guide (rather than profit) I don’t see it modeled very much .. not in politics, seldom in business.
That’s a very humbling message. No one just blows up a million dollar factory and just goes about their life as if it’s nothing. Often times learn lessons are the most valuable.