Quick Tale of Glacier and Wilfred Brown

Forrest Christianelliott jaques, Wilfred Brown 4 Comments

From Rushworth Kidder’s Moral Courage, chapter one. Walter Eric Duckworth (OBE), who I believe went on to serve as Head of the Fulmer Ltd. and Chairman of the London Metallurgical Society, describes an incident early in his career with Glacier Metal Company, right about the time that Tavistock and Elliott Jaques started working with the company. He is also a PhD from Cambridge (1945) and an honorary graduate of Brunel (1976) and U of Surrey (1980). Interesting chap.

But the story is great because it illustrates what was possible at Glacier back before Tavistock and Elliot Jaques came in.

The CEO is Wilfred Brown.

Eric Duckworth, an ebullient Englishman with an impish wit, notes with self-deprecating modesty that where moral courage is concerned he “usually fails.” But “on one occasion when I was young and idealistic,” he recalls, “I succeeded-and have been proud of it ever since.”

In 1949 Duckworth and his wife were newly married and applying for a mortgage to buy their first home in suburban London. A metallurgist by training, he had joined the Glacier Metal Company, now part of Federal Mogul, a firm that specialized in making bearings for internal combustion engines. Among his tasks were examining damaged bearings returned by customers to determine the causes of the failures, reporting back to the customers, and if necessary recommending changes in production processes to correct the problem.

Most of the time, he recalls, the failures were due to problems such as misuse, improper installation, and lack of lubrication. But “very occasionally,” he says, Glacier had supplied a faulty part. As Duckworth got more experience, he came to understand that those occasional faults were not being accurately reported. His boss, the chief metallurgist, regularly tried to cover up such faults by refusing to divulge all the facts.” He salved his conscience,” Duckworth recalls, “by saying that he was prepared to commit sins of omission but not of commission.”

As a result, bearing failures for which Glacier should have taken responsibility were attributed to mishandling by the end users, and no effort was made to compensate customers.

“After a while,” says Duckworth, “I disagreed.” He had been with the company for only six months when a particularly egregious case of failure by Glacier came to his attention. Instead of shifting the blame, he “wrote the report with complete honesty.” When his boss rejected his findings, Duckworth recalls that “in my altruistic, youthful fervor, I said I would resign.”

Moral courage or rash bravado? At the time, says Duckworth, “It was very foolish of me.” The sales department, agreeing with the chief metallurgist, protested his report vigorously, certain that such an admission of mistakes would cost them this customer and perhaps many more. Fortunately, Duckworth had already made suggestions that had increased the productivity of the manufacturing line threefold. Those actions, he suspects, had won him the admiration of the CEO, who backed him against his boss. The report was sent to the customer.

Shortly afterward, Duckworth says, “we got back a very congratulatory letter saying that the customer had always suspected concealment in some of our reports.” Welcoming the company’s newfound candor, they increased their orders as a result.

Comments 4

  1. Hi Manasclerk,

    This is a great story and seems to fit in with all that Wilfred Brown stood for and, more importantly, stood against. I once had the opportunity to interview one of Wilfred Brown’s directors. He seemed clear that Brown was the ‘genius’ in all of the developments at Glacier Metal.

    Interestingly, he said that Brown was as interested in the metallurgy as he was in management systems. So, when the war was over, at the first Insitute of Metallurgy conference, Glacier had the lions share of the papers published. When all the pressure was to focus on war effort production, Brown kept people researching. He seems to have led a questioning environment and the sort of mis-governance (sorry, I mean fiddle) that is mentioned he probably saw as deriving from the constitutional arrangements. So, he fixed them too!

  2. Post

    Duckworth, in some of his other writings for metallurgical journals, makes it clear that Glacier was a revolutionary workplace and that this had a huge affect on the research accomplished there. It’s interesting how many people seem to come from Glacier.

    Alistair Mant indicated that these workplace constitutional arrangements helped Glacier to survive the massive lawsuits against it after the war (apparently due to the UK suspension of patents during the war effort).

    That all said, Brown is clear that the genius behind the timespan of discretion was Elliott Jaques. There’s an amusing aside in Organization where Brown talks about how he and his staff made a sport out of shooting down the theory. They ate some crow later on this, of course.

    Mant says that Brown “understood power” but also understood that “power must be corralled”.

    I still say that had Brown been English and not a Scot, he would never have come up with these arrangements. (Something surely Jack will appreciate!)

  3. Post

    In case someone wants more details for research:

    Walter Eric Duckworth (OBE PhD) was a Research Manager starting in 1949. He’s also an honorary graduate of Brunel (1976) which is an interesting date. He was Operational Research Manager from 1955-1960 at Glacier, then I think at British Iron. He was Managing Direcotor of Fulmer Research Institute from 1969 until he retired. At least very recently, he was still doing occasional consulting.

    I recall seeing an article in Google Books from a British metallurgical journal or trade periodical in which he said that Glacier’s participation far exceeded that required by the (name of Dutch city, perhaps Maastricht) Protocols. In his review of Duckworth’s A Guide To Operational Research, Battersby commented that “Duckworth’s comments derive from the experiments in management at Glacier Metal….”

  4. Since being introduced to Jaques thugroh Tom & this site it has changed and enhanced my understanding of team building and managerial leadership development.Reading and thinking thugroh the systems he put into place for functional work and satisfaction of people within that work, is obvious and clouded by so people lacking the requisite capacity to be where they are.

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