Leading Change at Michelin’s Shanghai Factory

The Frenchman, Bertrand Ballarin, recently transferred from Michelin Corporation in France, to Shanghai Michelin Warrior Tire Co. in China, faced huge problems in his new role. This field-based case series, written by Jean Lee and Rebecca Chung, of CEIBS, explores how Ballarin tackled a range of fundamental issues, including a workforce with a starkly different cultural background and heavy financial losses. Jean and Rebecca discuss writing the case and why they feel it’s vital to target business leaders in China.

In Ballarin’s shoes

In this case, it was very easy to identify Ballarin as the protagonist. Facing a huge dilemma in his new job, Ballarin had his own way of solving the problems and made tremendous efforts to accomplish results. It is very effective pedagogically to put participants into his shoes so they can analyse the situation from his point of view and identify the principles and practices that make for the best solutions.

Strong reactions

When we test-drove the case during an in-company programme for Michelin China’s senior managers in Suzhou, we received strong reactions. For example, some loyal participants worried that the case might project a negative image of Michelin’s past. However, an enthusiastic employee volunteered to give us more information on how Ballarin used different tools to communicate his vision and progress to employees. We interviewed the employee on the spot and used the additional information to revise our draft.

Case writing tips

We strongly advise, if possible, test-driving a case with employees as they are the most demanding and the most helpful reviewers to assist in perfecting it. Having said that, case writers have to be cautious when making a judgment on whether and how to incorporate employees’ perspectives. The principle is to stay objective and factual.

For cases involving sensitive issues, the choice of words is critical when describing the dark side of a situation and the controversies involved. Thus, case writers need to spend time on brainstorming and pay special attention to picking the right words. Furthermore, it is important to ask not only the case contacts and protagonists to critique the draft, but also those cited to ensure quotes are accurate.  

‘Internal business meeting’

The case series is now used as part of the company’s in-house training programme. It enables employees to relate to the business situation, and their contribution enriches the discussion with nuanced views and different opinions. Employees very often turn the class discussion into an ‘internal business meeting’ to develop insights that are specific to their company culture.

Alien cultures

It is important to fulfil the learning needs of executives and managers in China because there are not enough change leaders in the country. This case series explores the key success factors involved in leading change in China specifically, where the power of personality rather than the rule of law dominates. It’s necessary for the leader to be alert to the negative emotions that usually exist in a turnaround situation.

This case series also has wider relevance, as a manager in a multinational company might be asked to go to any foreign country to turn around a poorly performing unit. When operating in an alien culture, take time to learn. Listening to and respecting the other culture is crucial to build trust. Always make positive assumptions about people who are from a different culture. Being authentic and genuine and paying extra attention to understanding and caring about employees is the guiding principle.

Learning objectives

In addition to the Michelin in-house training programme, this case series is being used for MBA classes and executive education programmes. It also complements other cases and teaching materials very well. The case series always triggers great discussions on why changes succeed or fail, and the importance of leadership in change.

It can also be used in customised development programmes with the immediate objective of designing initiatives or solving problems; it can act as a springboard for achieving practical objectives.

A creative teaching idea

After an introductory class discussion of case (A), says Jean, I asked half of the class to form small groups to discuss and present their action plan, and the other half of the class to review case (B) so they could act as coaches to the presenting teams. This gives participants an opportunity to practise coaching in addition to presenting as a team.

Over the years teaching in EMBA programmes, adds Jean, I have noticed that leading change, particularly change brought about by a joint venture, is a big concern to many executives. The Michelin case is a typical example

Leading change

Some underlying principles are applicable to any situation and the summary key lessons from this case series are very provocative and helpful to those students involved in leading change. However, a competent leader should understand that every situation is different and the relevant principles should be used to come up with the best approach for their particular circumstances.

An insider’s view: Lucy Qi, Director of HR, Michelin China

Lucy reflects on her experiences of being part of a case study and the benefits it has brought to the company as a whole. 

Leadership development programme

We were able to reflect on our organisation in liaison with an academic body which is very beneficial, providing learning for the whole management team. We now use the case series for our leadership development programme and it is also a good record of events for the company. 

In-house training

The case series is a good source for Michelin leaders to understand our values and history, it is also a good team-building tool, providing common understanding and sharing. The case is very specific to China which makes it very relevant and enables our employees to learn more from it.

Rebecca adds: ‘This shows how important it was to develop this case for the unique environment in China, reflecting the country’s culture and economic development. Michelin China has about 5,500 employees, including China strategy and admin, sales in various locations, R&D, the featured factory in Shanghai, and a much bigger and advanced factory in Shenyang, which has just been renovated and expanded.

‘This 14-minute video interview with Lucy Qi, made by Jean, describes the human resource (HR) perspective of the changes that were introduced and highlights the role of HR in the process.’

Case details

Leading Change at Michelin’s Shanghai Factory (A) & (B)
Jean Lee and Rebecca Chung
China Europe International Business School (CEIBS)
Ref 9B14C012 and 9B14C013
Also available:
Teaching note
8B14C012

About the authors

Jean Lee is the Chair Professor of Leadership and Human Resources Management, Professor of Management, Director of Leadership Behaviour Laboratory, and Co-Director of CEIBS Kaifeng Centre for Family Heritage at CEIBS (China Europe International Business School).
e jeanlee@ceibs.edu

Rebecca Chung was previously Assistant Director of CEIBS Case Development Centre and is now a freelance case writer and teacher.
e rebecca.wanwen.chung@gmail.com

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