Saturday, September 3, 2011

What I learnt from the Michelin Man...(breaking the mould)

I confess to an emotional attachment to Michelin.

I know that this will be seen by many as suspect. After all it's a multinational corporation we are talking about here. It's not fashionable to profess one's admiration for such a company.

I had better explain myself.

I have been living in Clermont Ferrand for almost half my life, As one arrives in my city, the capital of Auvergne in France, one is met by a gigantic billboard announcing factory buildings; this is the capital of Michelin.

Nobody in Clermont Ferrand can ignore the might of the company in the fabric of the community. For you, Michelin maybe only mean tyres and Bibendum, the company's logo, here it also names a family: Edouard, Andre, Marcel... streets, stadiums and schools. Clermont and Michelin are indissociably linked, for better or worse - fact.

As in all family histories, there have been shadowy stories and tragic instances. Stories of collaboration with the German occupier during the second world war or resistance to it followed by deportation and imprisonment. Triumph,..untimely death punctuate its saga.

Major conflict, industrial/internacine dispute, innovation, competition, domination, secrecy, distrust run deep here; emotional attachment does not preclude reasoned detachment or harsh judgement.

For all its failings, Michelin indisputably knows how to make trust-worthy radial tyres for your car, plane, tram, bike, tractor, truck or space shuttle.

One might remark: one tyre does not fit all.

Last Sunday, we took the kids to the park and while they were tiring themselves out, running, sliding and swinging. I fell into discussion with a Michelin man. He had just arrived in the capital after stints in the USA, Germany, the UK...

He was unquestionably, a Michelin man. Michelin men seem all to be of the same mould. Analytical, reasoned, reliably dressed and attached, Jean-Claude (we will call him JC), had worked in other corporations before being adopted by the Michelin family, thus giving him means of comparison.

Elsewhere, he had been used to being driven, his time and productivity counted to the last toc. The Michelin mind-set came as rather a shock.

"Yes, we think the fit between us is good, come and work with us." They had said at the interview.
"Oh right," said JC, "Er what shall I be doing."
"Oh don't worry about that." came the reply, "Trust us, come and work with us."
"Eh bien d'acord."

JC signed his contract.

A little while later, he was given an office and the vaguest of missions.

"OK, you have a month. Go and talk with us, see what we do, see what interests you. We'll talk together about where you'll be working after. Trust us."

A month later after observing JC from afar and chatting with other company men, the men came back and assigned JC his first real job. A variety of assignments around the world followed at regular intervals. Michelin invests in such men who will manage.

JC was now about to enter the lofty heights of the corporation's headquarters.

Financial director for agricultural tyres, his career was taking off. Happy, analytical, if not un-critical, JC expressed his admiration for the Michelin way. As the kids were whooping with joy in the play park.

I made mental notes:


How many older kids in school get to seriously play freely? Should they be so driven? How much time do we give them to find their route? How much of our observation is done from afar? How much time do we take to imagine their missions with them? Are we so impatient to mould them to be competitive that we tire them out? Do we confuse education with manufacture? What do we do to help them break our mould?


One tyre doesn't fit all.

You can't assemble a company or a community without trust.

Constant adaptation is essential to remain en route.

Freedom of action does not come without constraints.

Apprenticeship cannot be dissociated from research, repetition, or revolution.

Capital growth is rooted in social responsibilty.

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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, and a great way to connect learning to the community. How many companies allow play and free exploration of ideas? Not enough.