Beyond Corporate Responsibility at Kingsford Charcoal

Working with Kingsford was such a rich, multilayered experience — it demonstrates beautifully what can happen when a company uses a comprehensive set of frameworks and processes to address every aspect of its operations in an integrated way. When Will Lynn took over Kingsford, its workforce was relatively uneducated, it was a regional brand sold in a relatively short season, and it was costly to produce with a limited return to the corporate bottom and top lines. Will, who had been based in Kingsford’s Oakland, California, headquarters, liked to barbeque. He was a good host and loved being outdoors in the California sunshine, serving friends good food and good conversation. But his new focus on improving charcoal made him aware that he spent more time fussing with his grill than being with his guests. He took pride in being able to cook to order, serving burgers and steaks at precisely the right level of doneness, but the grill and the charcoal just wouldn’t cooperate. So when he began Kingsford’s strategic planning, he was already standing in his customer’s shoes.

Will also knew that he had to get his vice presidents to also stand in those shoes. Nothing fundamentally different was going to get created if they stayed locked into their marketing, manufacturing, and R&D mind-sets. As part of the requested radical new thinking, Will organized a company picnic with the Kingsford senior team serving, a sort of living laboratory for enacting and observing the barbeque experience. They set up a line of grills at a regional park near Sacramento and invited operators and their families from the nearby Elk Grove manufacturing facility. This was more than just an in-house focus group. Will’s vice presidents were carefully prepped to observe the living dynamics of the barbeque experience. They were asked to watch closely and at two levels: (1) “What is actually happening as I prepare, cook, serve, clean up?” and (2) “What is my inner experience of that work?” Understanding would come from reflection.

By carefully observing at these two levels, the management team was able to note how different people managed transactions between the food and the grill and the guests. They observed themselves trying to deliver a qualitative experience of family, outdoor living, and camaraderie that went far beyond serving good burgers. And they couldn’t fail to notice that Kingsford’s products were making it difficult to live up to that experience.

Through engaging in this rigorous mental exercise, Will’s vice presidents were able to bring a conscious awareness to the experience as it was unfolding. Afterward, when they came together to work on strategic planning, the group was able to generate a shared image of the totality of the experience, including both its inward and outward dimensions. From the moment they started planning the event to the moment they finished cleaning up, their observations included the workflow, emotional responses, challenges, and payoff involved in creating a family picnic. This was a process of an entirely different nature than product testing, which would have been about observing the charcoal, and it put the group in possession of a new level of understanding and caring that could never have been generated through market research or focus groups. That understanding, along with the awakened consciousness that developed it, forever changed the working of Kingsford.

It’s amazing, really, that simply paying attention (albeit very high-quality attention) to small everyday activities can have a transformative effect on a company and an industry. Yet the development of consciousness is precisely what makes the difference between incremental change and massive and total transformation. It seems nearly miraculous that Kingsford could go from an unprofitable regional brand to dominating more than 70 percent of the national market in two years, while at the same time moving its workforce literacy rate from 50 percent to 95 percent, but that’s the natural outcome of a process based on shifting consciousness. The same concepts apply to very large, sophisticated businesses operating in the modern global economy.

Attention Produces Intention

Kingsford’s leadership group now had a visceral and conscious experience of something so commonplace that they had never paid enough attention to it. For them, barbeque had become a living process and this allowed them to generate creative insights. First, the guy (even today in the world of backyard grills it’s usually a guy) with the spatula in his hand was not simply trying to cook. He was trying to orchestrate a bonding and energizing group experience. Second, he was taking on an archetypal male role — the pioneering, campfire-cooking outdoorsman or cowboy or hunter — and making it semi-gourmet, Wild West meets James Beard. The Kingsford group called it “macho” and included in it elements of personal style, self-expression, honoring of guests, connecting to nature, and rugged manliness. At the backyard grill, a man’s aspiration to elevate a picnic into a life-affirming special event became linked to his sense of what it means to be a man. No wonder it became a maddening experience when his tools failed him. Third, if they were to support this guy in his aspiration to create the perfect event, then they needed to look at all the aspects. Even the best-formulated charcoal wouldn’t be enough if the packaging created a mess, the grill delivered unpredictable temperatures, and there was no place to put a tray of meat or a bottle of sauce. They needed to provide him with a new bag, a new grill, and a new formula — that is, a product system, not just a product.

Inspired by this vision and direction, the team set out to enroll every co-creator, from the raw materials suppliers to the R&D labs at Clorox, the parent company; from the manufacturing line crews to the distributors. They were aided in their efforts by the fact that nearly all members of this value-adding stream had their own backyard experiences, good and bad. Still, it took some effort and education to get people to see how each part of the process played out at the grill, from raw material choices to formulations to production procedures to creation of packaging. Their challenge was to awaken the whole co-creative network to a new order of consciousness, and they used real and imagined picnics to do it. With an intensive education and reflective process, it was not long before they had sparked deep caring for the life of the consumer throughout Kingsford and beyond. As P&G’s Ken Wessel reminded me, “Get people connected to how they’re affecting real lives and they’ll find a way to make those lives better.”

For many years prior to this time, Clorox had chosen not to invest in Kingsford’s people or equipment. These were, in their eyes, people who were “unskilled workers” and to get any improvement in return from such an investment would require too much capital. The Kingsford team was starting in the hole, yet they knew that to earn their workforce’s trust they would need to make good on their promises to fund improvement ideas that were bubbling up. John Kabler, the manufacturing vice president for Kingsford, began to look for ways to scrape together small amounts of funding to get the process rolling. If someone could make a case for an improvement in consumer experience, product differentiation, or manufacturing process, John and his team found ways to make it happen. People often said that John could make money appear out of thin air. John’s version was that it was a matter of priorities. Salespeople began to identify ways to better serve many of their long-neglected retail and wholesale outlets, so their ideas were implemented. These small acts confirmed that Kingsford respected its people and believed they could be a source of creativity.

Self-Accountability Drives Responsibility

The key to the work in this early period was that everyone from operators on the plant floor to executives was engaged and educated to contribute their ideas for improving customer success. At the same time they held themselves accountable for demonstrating the validity of their ideas. Co-creators were taught to reflect on the connection between their own work and the effects on the people who experienced the results. Up until then, managers in distant offices, sometimes thousands of miles away, had been responsible for making these connections. Now every person, regardless of role, was asked to take responsibility for downstream effects, particularly the customer’s experience.

Needless to say, it took some time for managers to shift roles, which required them to give up being intermediaries and delegators who spoke for the workforce in aggregate, and learn instead to act as Socratic questioners, helping every individual to think and act independently.

As Kingsford became more sophisticated and more self-organizing, it extended this process to its network of distribution channels. This time the operators drove the process, using marketing, sales, and R&D as resources. They went into all kinds of stores, from Costco to local mom-and-pops, and worked side by side with the people there. This gave them direct experience of the lives and challenges of the drivers, the warehouse workers, the shelf stockers, and the checkout clerks. From this firsthand knowledge and accountability, they developed a variety of innovations to serve distributors, including redesigned pallets and pallet loading practices, packaging, and merchandising campaigns.

Making the company customer conscious sparked a quiet revolution. Without initially really trying to, the people of Kingsford dismantled the departmental and hierarchical barriers that had prevented them from working effectively together. They became an increasingly egalitarian organization, not because they set out with that goal in mind but because that was what was required. One’s function, department, or level in the organization became irrelevant. The culture shifted to one of deep respect for the inherent intelligence and capacity of everyone on the team. By the time that work redesign was being implemented, everyone was involved in eliminating any vestige of the old assembly line model.

People organically organized their work around what advanced the company’s contribution to its buyers. Self-organization allowed co-creators the flexibility they needed to respond to changes in the competitive environment and also made it easier for those who were caring for kids or elders at home. The union had sought more flexibility through bargaining but now it was emerging from the evolution of work systems. Just as Will Lynn had hoped, every worker learned to think like an owner. In the process, they also discovered new levels of dignity, self-respect, and meaningful contribution in their work and their lives.

This way of working changes not only a company and the lives of its workers, it also ripples out into neighborhoods and cities and eventually even to the nation. People who are part of an experience like the one at Kingsford know to their core that social justice and equity are workable and valuable. The Regenerative Business doesn’t work on social justice by creating a program.

Instead, it enables people to work together reflectively on something they consider important. Equity and justice come into being as natural by-products of principles and aims, not departments. The experience is literally life changing for everyone involved and they carry it with them into every other part of their lives.

The transformation of Kingsford’s company culture didn’t happen by accident. It was actively cultivated through a fundamental redefinition of the role and development of individuals in the organization. Kingsford did not follow a program to become a decentralized or democratized organization. Its aim was to cultivate and harness the creative energies of each individual in service of the consumer. But this had the effect of creating a self-organizing workforce.

Democratization of the workplace, another popular human resource program, is generally implemented outside the context of a customer-conscious culture and instead focuses on attempts to increase participation, access collective experience and intelligence, and move decision making down the ranks from managers to front-line employees. The limitation of this approach is that it invites people to help make decisions without evolving their thinking and personal capacity to do so. Better decision making requires a shared larger purpose and increased individual ability to make judgments about what will advance that purpose. In the absence of these conditions, and in an attempt to be inclusive, people tend to sink to the common denominators on which they can agree. By contrast, the Regenerative Business sees individuals rather than roles and this recognition enables all co-creators to self-identify the unique contributions they have to make to the customer’s life.

Core Teams

Most of the people who participated in these early sessions went on to set up the next tier of work, establishing core teams for specific manufacturing facilities so that the rest of the people in the business could be involved. Each core team reflected all of the working aspects of that facility along with marketing, R&D, and members from the co-creator ranks. They met monthly to improve and evolve the businesses and facilities. The core teams did not replace management, which continued to be responsible for the ongoing work of the business; rather, the core teams looked at the unrealized potential of the business and sought ways to develop the capacity to realize that potential. To do this, they imaged themselves sitting on the boundary between the business or facility and the world and asked themselves what was required to ensure a healthy business and a healthy business ecosystem. Much of the innovation in co-creator relationships, as well as the integration of functions that had been isolated for decades, came directly from the work of the core teams.

One of these core teams, based at Burnside, Kentucky, could see that the pursuits they were taking on would require people to do a great deal more independent learning, self-managing, and self-evaluation, and that this meant they would need to be able to read or read better. The Burnside facility, including the core team, had a 50 percent literacy rate, so they initiated the first literacy campaign at Kingsford. They weren’t imposing requirements from above; they were taking on a fairly terrifying challenge for themselves and committing to it as a group.

The core team talked over what would move them past their own fear into courage and agreed that three things must be present for a successful literacy program. First, they had to see how it would contribute to the business and not become just a training task. Second, they had to connect their families to the program so that they could understand the importance and the demands of the undertaking. And third, they felt it was imperative to do it with others and not in isolation. They also made sure that privacy would be respected by providing after-work classes and ways to enter classrooms unseen. Pretty soon everyone who could benefit was involved. This broad participation effectively broke the generational chain of illiteracy for hundreds of families in the region.

To make the literacy program work, the group needed to apply their learning immediately. They decided to start by writing and publishing a newsletter and agreed to report on both company and community news. Their publishing staff included some literate persons and the group hired a teacher to help them learn to read and write. They created collaborative circles for writing, critiquing, and managing technological challenges (this was initiated prior to the era of computer self-publishing but they brought it online partway through the project). Their passionate commitment to communicating accurately and in impeccable English motivated them to achieve their literacy goals in a third of the time usually required. They involved their children in the editing and storytelling, giving them a powerful connection to parents as well as to the value of communicating and writing well. The newsletter became an important and popular source for community information. It told stories about what real people were doing inside and outside of Kingsford, nurturing a sense of pride and of place. This community may never have been reflected back to itself in this way, and it was a powerful and uplifting experience. The wife of the governor of Kentucky nominated the project for a Toyota Community Action Award after going on a site tour when she heard the story from operators, their families, and community leaders. They won the award.

Although this initiative was both impressive and inspiring, it is important to remember that it was undertaken not from a charitable impulse to “improve the community,” but to improve the business. It was a completely natural and necessary part of the work of the business, and it was the work of a Regenerative Business. As a business initiative, it succeeded. Kingsford was able to integrate increasingly sophisticated technologies, chemical processes, and market relationships because it had an educated, articulate, self-organized, and self-directed workforce.

About Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Life: Transform Any Organization, Our Society, and Your Destiny, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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