Big decisions over a cup of coffee

Don Spetner on how Styrofoam cups offer a glimpse into big-company DNA

It's hard to run a big company. It's hard to be nimble when you're huge. It's hard to innovate while managing risk. It's hard to be responsive while watching costs.

Policies are established to keep order and provide guidance, but these policies have a way of taking on a life of their own, and pretty soon you're just plain bureaucratic.

It's a fascinating process to observe. I had the good fortune of having the entire DNA of big-company-disease revealed to me in a simple snapshot, all because of Styrofoam cups.

It was the early 1990s and the green movement was enjoying a renaissance after the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. I was working at Nissan. We had coffee stations on every floor of every building in every facility in every country where we operated. Every one of these coffee stations had Styrofoam cups in which we'd pour coffee and tea for our guests and ourselves.

The problem, of course, was that Styrofoam, like herpes and diamonds, is forever. Styrofoam was bad in a lot of ways. It would sit in landfills and leak toxins into groundwater. Or it would get incinerated and end up as airborne toxic ash. One study showed that Styrofoam cups actually lost weight when in use, meaning that styrene was oozing into the foods and drinks we consumed. It then ended up stored in our fatty tissue, where it could build up to levels that caused fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping - typical traits of PR pros, right?

Anyway, McDonald's figured all of this out way ahead of the rest of us, and banned Styrofoam packaging for its products. The net result: our CEO began getting a lot of angry e-mails from employees asking that we get rid of Styrofoam.

Facing such a crisis, we did what every big company does: we held a meeting.

At our monthly operating committee meeting, we discussed what to do about the Styrofoam cup issue. The head of HR, who had jurisdiction over facilities, gave a presentation. Alternative material cups at that time were very expensive, so that wasn't a great option. We could, however, increase our production of Nissan-branded ceramic mugs, give one to every employee, provide extras on each floor for guests, protect the environment, and make everyone happy. The operating committee unanimously concurred with the recommendation.

Two meetings later, the Styrofoam cup issue re-emerged. It seems we had an administrative assistant revolt on our hands. Apparently no one was taking responsibility for washing the ceramic mugs after meetings, so all the sinks were piling up with dirty dishes. Of course, no executives were volunteering to wash the cups, so the assistants got stuck with dishwashing duty and were not happy.

The VP of parts and services suggested we buy a dishwasher for each floor. The CFO opined that the cost was prohibitive. The head of sales said we should establish dishwashing shifts for each floor to distribute the work- load. The VP of engineering felt we should create a policy that whomever hosted the meeting is responsible for the mugs. Our general counsel noted that such a rule would be impossible to enforce. I kept my mouth shut.

After 45 minutes, our CEO grew tired of wasting time talking about it. He suggested that the VP of HR "figure it out."

Thirty days later, we went back to Styrofoam cups.

Eventually the price of disposable coffee cups came down and the dreaded Styrofoam was retired. But I did get to live briefly on the cutting edge of corporate decision-making.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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