Is Jack Welch a Turkey?


Welch spreads business gospel from MIT pulpit – MSNBC Wire Services – MSNBC.com

Jack Welch himself sure seems like the turkey with comments like this:

“Don’t fall in love with your workers,” a business instructor tells a student who’s launching a small startup company. “If you’ve got 16 employees, at least two are turkeys.”

I realize Jack Welch is no longer the CEO at GE. He doesn’t speak for them anymore, but he was extremely influential on their culture and I’m sure he’s revered even today. But I’m embarrassed that MIT and the Sloan School of Management (where I earned my MBA) is associated with comments like this.

There is a lot of buzz about how General Electric is adopting Lean in addition to Six Sigma. With a comment like Welch’s (again, realizing he’s teaching from the perspective of a retired old turkey not as GE CEO), I would suspect that GE will do better on the “eliminating waste” front than they will on the “respect for people” front. The Toyota Production System preaches respect for people — and that doesn’t mean coddling someone if they truly are a poor performer. “Respect” doesn’t mean being nice and making excuses for someone. But respect also means not calling names and insulting your current or former employees. Having respect for employees is hardly “falling in love with them.”

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If GE had to force the bottom 10% out of the company (“And don’t bother trying to improve the performance of underachievers in the bottom 10 percent of the company’s work force, he said.”), you have to ask why GE would hire turkeys in the first place.

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It reminds me of the great quote from Peter Scholtes — if you’re firing dead wood, didn’t you hire live trees to start with?

My understanding of the Toyota approach is 1) you’re extremely careful in selecting people at hiring so you AVOID “turkeys” and 2) you coach and lead people, you develop them rather than giving up on them as “turkeys.” It’s fair to tell someone they’re underperforming and here are the things they need to do better. It seems disrespectful to tell someone they’re a turkey to get rid of them. Toyota WOULD “bother” to try to improve the performance of people. Am I wrong on that?

Jack Welch speaks like this about people all the time. He’s a man who apparently made money in spite of all the “turkeys” who worked for him. I guess money and financial success doesn’t mean you have grace or class.

I guess Prof. Welch would call me a “boss hater” for daring to question his wisdom. Another obnoxious phrase he has spun. What do you think? Click on “comments” to participate.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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19 Comments

  1. JWDT says

    A couple of comments: As a former GE BB & LEAN Leader (now in Healthcare) I can honestly say some of the GE leadership gets part of Lean, the rest (like the Six Sigma Community (internal & external)) does not have a clue. The Leadership sees this as the latest ‘buzz’ to get ‘cost out’. They are all for elimination of waste as long as it doesn’t cut to close to home. GE claims it no longer forces the bottom 10% out, that is a farce. The underlying behavior and culture is still very prevalent and whether they formally continue with the approach or not, the culture is deeply imbedded.
    Another interesting thing to know, is the Six Sigma culture is so deeply entrenched they view LEAN or more correctly put “The Toyota Production System” (as someone recently put on iSixSigma, “Lean is a cheap imitation for the Toyota Production System”) as an enemy instead of an ally. That is why GE is pushing so hard for the bastardization of Lean, they realize Six Sigma is about controlling variation (which emanates from waste) whereas TPS/LEAN is about eliminating the waste (thus the variation). What’s the issue is the lack of humility of the Six Sigma folks, they do not like the idea of sharing the spotlight with something like LEAN – or my 2 cents worth.
    In conclusion, Jack has pushed the envelope when it comes to squeezing & molding a culture, the real test will be if Immelt & co-horts can be real General’s and turn the ship the TPS way. I am not so optimistic.

  2. Anonymous says

    I think a major contributor to having to “fire turkeys” is the traditional batch and que HR policy. During good times, companies hire any warm body to staff up. During bad times, they “fire turkeys” who they never should have hired in the first place.
    Today we’re hiring turkeys to replace experienced folks laid off three years ago. And our cost reduction projects are behind because we haven’t got the experience base to get the job done.

  3. Craig Woll says

    In Morgan and Liker’s book “The Toyota Product Development System” they mention that if an engineer can no longer be trusted with a project they are given “an office by the window” and a project where they can do no harm. The projects assigned to employees are based on level of trust established through past successes.

  4. Anonymous says

    With respect to the GE model vs. the Toyota model of business:
    GE can not make a washing machine or other appliance. Toyota makes the best selling cars in the world.
    Who has the better business model?

  5. Spencer says

    Excellent article about business and investing in developing leaders rather than executing turkeys.

    When a CEO is merely focused on the bottom line to the detriment of its workforce, the entire business is on shakey ground. A CEO needs to understand that leaders develop leaders. And when you take the time to care enough about those people you create trust and a family atomsphere at work. When that happens you have company that will continually defeat its competitors decade after decade.

  6. Anonymous says

    it is funny. when i first got to my present job, my production numbers were in the toilet. as one of the managers admitted, they hadn’t really trained me. a night or two with another worker showing me what to do, and i was fine. when i left that job my numbers were well above average and i had introduced a few new things that even speeded up the process.

    the ‘weed out people’ philosophy might make for some good numbers, but in the long term you wind up with a damaged creation that is sub optimal.

  7. Anonymous says

    To the last poster, I think you are seeing the point of Welch’s comment. If you were a turkey, you wouldn’t have learned what was needed and eventually got your job done. I guess I’ve seen my share of turkeys – and no amount of training will save them

  8. Mike Lopez says

    I think that the poster above is right. GE is known as an incredible developer of talent. They spend significant resources training and working with employees to help them be successful. By talking about turkeys, I think he was saying the same thing as Jim Collins in Good to Great. Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Not everyone is perfect for your company. Maybe not as many as 10%/year are wrong for the company, but there is no way every employee is a fit. Get the mediocre off the bus.

    I think Welch was using the 80/20 rule. Any time spent on below average employees will only make them average. Time spend on excellent employees will make superstars. Spend 80% of your time on the top 20% and you will get 200% out of them. I’ll bet Welch wanted his management team to only concentrate on the best.

    The unfortunate consequence was that after a few years, the caliber of employee rose and GE would have to get rid of some not so mediocre employees. Immelt has changed the 10% rule.

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