Case Spotlight: Values Engineering (A and B): The Story of a Supply Chain

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This case was featured in the June 2024 issue of Connect.

Who – the protagonists

Bruce, Project Manager for the firm of architects, Simon, Contract Manager for the main contractor, Ben, Project Manager for the specialist cladding contractor, Deborah, Country Sales Manager for the façade manufacturer, and Jonathan, Product Manager at the insulation manufacturer.

What?

This free case series is a snapshot of the ethical challenges faced by members of a supply chain as they work on a high-rise renovation project.

The story is a true one, as it reflects on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives in a London high-rise.

Grenfell tower

Why?

Errors were made by all five protagonists through the construction process.

Bruce adopted a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and agreed to phase payments in such a way that his firm of architects avoided the standard tender process.

Simon tried to drive down costs to meet the quoted price while maintaining profitability.

Ben, a recently graduated project manager for his father's specialist building-façade firm, had insufficient technical knowledge, and failed to follow up on crucial questions, instead relying on others in the supply chain to ensure compliance with regulations.

Deborah, a sales manager with minimal technical knowledge, supplied misleading information and oversold, partly due to pressure and poor communication from her bosses overseas.

Jonathan, a young product manager, did the unthinkable by participating in a faked fire-safety test.

When?

The story is a true one, as the (B) case reveals that it's based on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives in a London high-rise.

The tragedy happened in 2017, after a tiny spark in a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor caused the high-rise to be engulfed in flames within 30 minutes.

Where?

Grenfell Tower stood in the Notting Hill area of West London.

Key quote

“The companies responsible killed those 72 people as sure as if they had taken careful aim with a gun and pulled the trigger.”
One lawyer told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

What next?

The main question to consider is: did any of the five characters (or their bosses, or their company) do anything unethical (or negligent, or possibly illegal)?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

On reasons for writing the case…

Craig said: “This case began in an unusual way, my co-author Elin went to see a play called Value Engineering. The play itself was unusual too, consisting of dialogue extracted verbatim from corporate evidence to a UK Public Inquiry about a fire that killed 72 Londoners in 2017. We realised that the inquiry process gave us access to the kind of material from companies you wouldn't normally have access to in writing a case study - including evidence given under oath, and emails that no one would ever divulge unless legally forced to!

“The fire that gave rise to the inquiry was at least in part a story of business ethics failures. Here, using authoritative testimony, we had an opportunity to write about the ethical challenges faced by members of a supply chain apparently unaware of how their individual actions would ultimately contribute collectively to a great tragedy.”

On the case writing challenges…

Elin commented: “One challenge in writing the story was keeping it short. It's a multi-year inquiry (still ongoing as of 2024) and even the play was 90 pages long. We wanted to keep the main case to just five pages so that it could be used as a ‘compact case’. We did this by focusing on five individuals from five companies involved in the Grenfell Tower ‘value’ chain - people who we thought students would relate to.

“The second challenge was trying to separate the past choices of these individuals from the terrible consequences that they may (or may not) have contributed to. Together with our efforts to disguise the case (and avoid alerting students to its links to Grenfell), this was to meet our pedagogical objective of enabling discussion of commonplace ethical failures without them being overshadowed by the tragic consequences. A related challenge was realising that some of these choices were alarmingly similar in ethical terms to decisions we'd made in the past.”

signpost

On case writing tips…

He added: “While cases are inevitably a simplification of a situation (to keep them short) and they rely on reconstructions of the past (and memory can be imperfect and distorted by interpretation), we believe it is vital to keep as close to the essential truth of the situation as possible. In the words of the great Harvard Business School case teacher Paul Lawrence, we aim to “bring a chunk of reality into the classroom."

Final word…

Craig concluded: “This case is free to use as well as short, with a teaching note that offers good suggestions on how to make it work well in the classroom. Our hope is that it will be widely adopted and thus stimulate awareness and understanding of how ethical failures arise and thereby help students avoid making the same mistakes in their own working lives.”

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonists

Bruce, Project Manager for the firm of architects, Simon, Contract Manager for the main contractor, Ben, Project Manager for the specialist cladding contractor, Deborah, Country Sales Manager for the façade manufacturer, and Jonathan, Product Manager at the insulation manufacturer.

What?

This free case series is a snapshot of the ethical challenges faced by members of a supply chain as they work on a high-rise renovation project.

The story is a true one, as it reflects on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives in a London high-rise.

Grenfell tower

Why?

Errors were made by all five protagonists through the construction process.

Bruce adopted a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and agreed to phase payments in such a way that his firm of architects avoided the standard tender process.

Simon tried to drive down costs to meet the quoted price while maintaining profitability.

Ben, a recently graduated project manager for his father's specialist building-façade firm, had insufficient technical knowledge, and failed to follow up on crucial questions, instead relying on others in the supply chain to ensure compliance with regulations.

Deborah, a sales manager with minimal technical knowledge, supplied misleading information and oversold, partly due to pressure and poor communication from her bosses overseas.

Jonathan, a young product manager, did the unthinkable by participating in a faked fire-safety test.

When?

The story is a true one, as the (B) case reveals that it's based on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives in a London high-rise.

The tragedy happened in 2017, after a tiny spark in a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor caused the high-rise to be engulfed in flames within 30 minutes.

Where?

Grenfell Tower stood in the Notting Hill area of West London.

Key quote

“The companies responsible killed those 72 people as sure as if they had taken careful aim with a gun and pulled the trigger.”
One lawyer told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

What next?

The main question to consider is: did any of the five characters (or their bosses, or their company) do anything unethical (or negligent, or possibly illegal)?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

On reasons for writing the case…

Craig said: “This case began in an unusual way, my co-author Elin went to see a play called Value Engineering. The play itself was unusual too, consisting of dialogue extracted verbatim from corporate evidence to a UK Public Inquiry about a fire that killed 72 Londoners in 2017. We realised that the inquiry process gave us access to the kind of material from companies you wouldn't normally have access to in writing a case study - including evidence given under oath, and emails that no one would ever divulge unless legally forced to!

“The fire that gave rise to the inquiry was at least in part a story of business ethics failures. Here, using authoritative testimony, we had an opportunity to write about the ethical challenges faced by members of a supply chain apparently unaware of how their individual actions would ultimately contribute collectively to a great tragedy.”

On the case writing challenges…

Elin commented: “One challenge in writing the story was keeping it short. It's a multi-year inquiry (still ongoing as of 2024) and even the play was 90 pages long. We wanted to keep the main case to just five pages so that it could be used as a ‘compact case’. We did this by focusing on five individuals from five companies involved in the Grenfell Tower ‘value’ chain - people who we thought students would relate to.

“The second challenge was trying to separate the past choices of these individuals from the terrible consequences that they may (or may not) have contributed to. Together with our efforts to disguise the case (and avoid alerting students to its links to Grenfell), this was to meet our pedagogical objective of enabling discussion of commonplace ethical failures without them being overshadowed by the tragic consequences. A related challenge was realising that some of these choices were alarmingly similar in ethical terms to decisions we'd made in the past.”

signpost

On case writing tips…

He added: “While cases are inevitably a simplification of a situation (to keep them short) and they rely on reconstructions of the past (and memory can be imperfect and distorted by interpretation), we believe it is vital to keep as close to the essential truth of the situation as possible. In the words of the great Harvard Business School case teacher Paul Lawrence, we aim to “bring a chunk of reality into the classroom."

Final word…

Craig concluded: “This case is free to use as well as short, with a teaching note that offers good suggestions on how to make it work well in the classroom. Our hope is that it will be widely adopted and thus stimulate awareness and understanding of how ethical failures arise and thereby help students avoid making the same mistakes in their own working lives.”

THE CASE 

The authors

Craig Smith
INSEAD Chair in Ethics and Social Responsibility
Elin Williams
Copywriter
Freelance
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