A Brief Historical Interlude: On the Glacier Metal Company

Forrest Christian elliott jaques, Underachievers, Wilfred Brown 3 Comments

(The next post today will address the Underachieve issue directly. This one describes why Wilfred Brown is important to listen to. We’ll refer to these things later.)

As Paul Holstrom pointed out, my telling of the story about the Glacier guys coming up with Timespan was a bit off. They had been having a pint and were talking about the CEO’s current problem. Not only that, but they felt secure enough that they could go to the corporate consultant with their ideas.

Let’s put this into context: at the end of the war, Glacier Metal Company was Europe’s largest ball-bearing manufacturer. Might not seem like much, but Glacier made bearings for a variety of industries, including automotive (where the company got its start in the States). Wilfred Brown had been thrust into the role of Chief Executive at the age of 29 by a series of unfortunate deaths. He wasn’t even the right politics: Mant writes that during the war, Brown was “attracted to the newly-formed Common Wealth party“, a very left-leaning party. This is not your typical industrialist.

Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute described the problems Brown was confronting in his introduction to Brown’s Explorations In Management:

[Brown] was at that time [immediately after the war] severely bothered about the nature of executive authority and the source of its sanction. Until he could be clear on these matters, he did not feel free to command people as he felt they should be commanded and to mobilize them fully for the tasks that had to be done. He saw the extent to which managerial authority was perceived by the workers as both absolute and arbitrary. So long as this was so, marginal participation only could be expected of the operatives in the work of the enterprise.

So this was the problem that he was having Tavistock (and later Jaques by himself) work after the war. It had to do with his needing to understand why he would have legitimate authority. He would later talk about coming to understand that he couldn’t push his responsibilities down onto his subordinates. While their input could inform his decisions, as the chief executive there were many decisions that he had to make alone.

I wish that I could go into the full details of the Works Council which Brown created at Glacier. They started as a form of democratic workplace, with group decision making of managerial decisions. That simply didn’t work. What did was a council that decided, through single-person veto voting, about changes to what Glacier called “policy”. It pretty much defused the labour problems so prevalent at the company before. They were brilliant. If the council could not come to a unanimous agreement (not consensus), management could continue on the old policy.

As I get into these discussion, remember that these ideas were implemented first within a company where the CEO had intentionally ceded power to the works councils. He even ceded power to Jaques, in a way: the doctor had complete access across the corporation. Brown’s son recalls his father complaining that “Dr. Jaques knows more about what’s going on in my company than I do.”

This ends our little historical excursion. It’s important to know the social context of the brilliance of our Union workers who came to Dr. Jaques, and indeed the work of both Jaques and Brown.

Previous in this thread: When Being An Underachiever Is Really Just Being Stuck Next in this thread: It’s About Time, Underachievers!

Image Credit: A Musical Interlude (1903) by Adolphe-Alexandre Lesrel. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: When Being An Underachiever Is Really Just Being Stuck | Requisite Writing

  2. My father Donald Jack Clarkson was the Personnel Manager and later Director during the period 1940-early 1960’s.

    He lectured at The London School of Economics and during the war he led the safety crew and slept most nights at the factory.

  3. Post

    Wow! That’s an incredible story! As an American, it is easy for me to forget the incredible danger a bearings factory would have been during the War. It was much more than a job.

    I would enjoy hearing any stories you recall of your father’s time. So much was going on during his tenure!

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