From Sabotage to Collaboration: A Factory’s Dramatic Shift from a Bounded to Centered Approach


Guest Blog by Nathan Hunt

Back in the ‘70s, one of Frito Lay’s production plants received a rash of angry letters from customers with same bizarre complaint: their potato chips had obscene messages written on them. As leadership in the company assessed the situation at the plant, it quickly became obvious that this was just one more symptom of a very unhealthy workplace. “The climate at that plant was toxic. Supervisors there were using the traditional ‘progressive-discipline’ system for all violations, serious or trivial. They eagerly wrote up troublemakers in an attempt to run off malcontents. Every employee who received any disciplinary contact was considered a ‘troublemaker;’ his performance was attentively watched with the goal of finding sufficient evidence of misbehavior to whisk him through the discipline system and out the door” (Grote, 1). Plant managers had fired 58 of their 210 employees in the past eight months, convinced that harshly punishing any minor break from “the rules” was the best way to improve their employees’ quality of work. Not surprisingly, it had done exactly the opposite. All this led to pent up frustrations, staggeringly low morale and the desire to somehow “get back” at their managers for being such jerks. In that spirit, one unnamed employee decided to take matters into his or her own hands and started writing the obscene messages on potato chips.

How do you fix issues as systemic as these? They could not just throw out or ignore all policies and rules. The company still needed to function efficiently and productively to stay in business. Dismissing these necessities would bankrupt the company and undermine any ability to accomplish their mission. Nonetheless, Frito Lay’s dysfunctional system for dealing with their employee’s mistakes and deviances was clearly at the heart of the problem.

They made a radical decision. Supervisors would treat employees like human beings worthy of respect. Frito Lay stated, “We created a system that focused on insisting that people take personal responsibility for their choices of behavior and conduct--a system that reflected our belief that every one of our employees, even our ‘troublemakers,’ was a mature, responsible, and trustworthy adult who would respond that way if we treated him that way” (2). Management learned to stop penalizing employees after every little infraction. Instead, they worked to cast a compelling cultural vision of what a true Frito Lay employee is like: honest, hardworking, supportive, etc. Deciding to work for Frito Lay was also a personal decision to value and embody those characteristics

A manager would remind the employee that they had decided for their self to live out Frito Lay’s values—it was something they personally desired to be. Together, the manager and employee would explore what barriers were keeping the employee from living up to their values, look for creative solutions and place the responsibility for those actions on the shoulders of the employee. If he or she continued to fall short of the company’s values, the employee would be given a paid day off. The day off was an opportunity to reflect on what the person wanted for their self and who they wanted to be. They could either return and live out the vision of the company or resign with the manager’s blessing. The decision was in their hands, and at all stages the goal was to cultivate everyone into the best possible person—not weed out the “troublemakers.”

After two years of using this approach, terminations at the plant dropped from 58 in an eight-month period to 2. Camaraderie returned among employees and with their supervisors. Production increased. “The plant was transformed” (24).

Christians and churches all over the world are attempting to transition away from the legalistic patterns that historically marked our approach to “sin.” Our religiosity and boundary making has embittered many of our own and alienated many more watching from the outside. Far too many proverbial “curse-word-covered potato chips” have been shipped out into the world by well-meaning congregations.

In reaction to our judgmental past, the temptation is to toss all the rules and standards out the window. It feels much more loving to listen to the sirens of American culture and remake ourselves into a fully open and unilaterally tolerant club, accepting everyone exactly as they are. However, a moment of reflection reveals that this approach also falls short. Just like Frito Lay, the Church has a mission. Theirs was making potato chips efficiently and profitably. Doing so required a particular caliber of employee, doing their very best to live out the company’s culture of excellence. The Church also has a mission. We have been called to be a worshiping and serving community, glorifying God and building for his Kingdom of shalom. Doing so requires people striving to model their life after Jesus.

A centered set approach to discipleship is not an “anything goes” paradigm, blithely disposing of the high ethical standards Jesus established through his teaching, ministry and self-sacrificing death. Rather, it asks us to dispose of the arbitrary rules that create unhelpful boundaries for determining righteousness, acknowledging that these do more to undermine than facilitate the Church’s collective quest for holiness. It asks us to shift from enforcing standards through the threat of punishment, to calling Christ-followers to take responsibility for their behavior accompanied by others offering loving support.

In place of rules and boundaries, we are called to gaze at the impossibly lofty vision of Christ on the cross and continually challenge one another to press toward him. We are called to treat people like adults who do not need carefully delineated rules and punishments to keep them in line. We are called to respect the dignity of each person. Doing so means allowing some to choose the journey and others to reject it, always ready to welcome them back with grace and point them toward Jesus.

What are ways the case study informs your thinking about and practice of a centered approach?


Posted on October 13, 2017 .