Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ford’s Mulally: It's OK not to be OK

By Al Norval,

I saw this article in USA Today and thought it was such a great example of Leadership exhibiting the Mental Models, that I wanted to share it with you. Allan Mulally, Ford CEO, was talking about his experience at one of his first management meetings with the Executive Leadership team at Ford after he joined the company. Allan had enjoyed a successful career at Boeing and had recently joined Ford as CEO.

Quoting Allan from the USA Today article,

“In one of the Thursday management meetings, where managers are supposed to show color-coded charts, red for serious problems, yellow for lesser issues, green for all OK, "all the charts were green and I know — we're going to lose $17 billion. I stopped the meeting and I said, 'Is there anything that isn't going well? We're losing $17 billion.'”

Imagine that, Ford was losing $17 Billion and not one Executive raised a problem – everything was OK in my area – it must be the other guys.

The culture at Ford at the time was one where you didn’t surface problems. The underlying Mental Model was problems are to be hidden in closets or swept up under the carpet. Don’t admit you had problems. Mulally realized that it was perfectly natural for organizations to have problems and that the only way to get better was to surface the problems and engage people to work on resolving them.

He went on to say "The next week here comes Mark (Fields, now president of Ford's North and South America operations) and his charts are all red. Everybody else's were green. I started to clap, and I said 'That's great.'

As a Leader, Mulally was exhibiting the Mental Model of “Problems are Gold”. It’s OK to surface problems – everyone has them. He understood the way to improvement was to surface problems and get to root cause. Only then could countermeasures be put in place which strengthened their systems so the problems didn’t surface again and again.

Problems are Gold is a Lean Mental Model which is the opposite of the Traditional Mental Model of hiding problems so they can’t be seen.

Leadership is about changing Mental Models which enable our behaviors to change. As senior leaders change their behavior the rest of the organization watches and begins to change their behavior as well. The changes rapidly spread throughout the organization.

It’s OK not to be OK.

See the attached link for the complete article.

For more on Mental Models, please see our Lean Brain Booster pocket cards.



  1. Al,

    Great example of a mental model that is all too common in many companies today! Thanks for sharing.

    Todd Kibler

  2. You're right Todd. It is all to common today. What I like is Mulally sticking to the basics and getting his leadership team to change their behaviors first. The ripple efect of that throughout the organization can be very powerful. Change is always easier when it starts at the top.

  3. Good discussion. Mr. Mulally exemplifies kaizen spirit. He's cheerful, optimistic and energetic.

    By contrast, people who hide problems tend to cheerless, pessimistic & passive.

    Does making problems visible, as Mr. Mulally has done, free you up?

    Make sense on several levels, not the least of which is, denial takes a lot of energy!