Gloves on the boardroom table

Posted by Harry Mills on 7 January 2016 | Comments

A brilliant example of an Aha! guided discovery process that also demonstrates the seductive power of self-persuasion comes from from John Stegner, a creative catalyst who worked as a manager for a U.S. billion dollar sized manufacturer.

Stegner believed his company was wasting millions of dollars through wasteful purchasing practices. He believed the potential savings were huge. “I thought we had an opportunity to drive down purchasing costs not by two per cent but by something in the order of $1 billion over the next five years”, said Stegner.

To capture these savings Stegner knew he would have to persuade his bosses that the savings were possible and a concerted effort across the firm was worthwhile. And herein lay the problem. Few of his bosses shared Stegner’s views that their firms purchasing practices were riddled with inefficiencies.

To overcome his bosses’ skepticism and complacency Stegner could have prepared a provocative, persuasive PowerPoint pitch supported by spreadsheets of credible data. That’s what most managers in a similar position would have done. 

But, instead of presenting a comprehensive business case for improving purchasing practices across the firm, Stegner focused his efforts on finding one vivid example of the company’s poor purchasing habits that would highlight the bigger problem.

To do this, Stegner commissioned a summer student intern to investigate and calculate costs of purchasing a single item – work gloves. Work gloves were a clever choice because this was an item workers in all the companies’ factories wore. The intern discovered the factories were purchasing 424 – yes, four hundred and twenty four – different types of gloves from multiple suppliers, and all were separately negotiating their own prices. Prices for the exact same glove ranged from $5 to $17. Even Stegner was amazed by the findings.

Next, Stegner had the intern collect a sample of every one of the 424 different types of gloves and tag each one with the price paid. 

Finally he asked the student to gather up all the gloves and pile them on the large expensive table in the company boardroom. Ready, Stegner now asked all the division presidents to come and visit his “glove shrine.” Stegner recalled the scene.


“What they saw was a large expensive table, normally clean or with a few papers, now stacked high with gloves. Each of our executives stared at this display for a minute.

Then each said something like, “we really buy all these different kinds of gloves?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes we do. “Really?” Yes, really.

Then they walked around the table…. They could see the prices. They looked at two gloves that seemed exactly alike, yet one was marked

$3.22 and the other $10.55. It’s a rare event when these people don’t have anything to say. But that day they just stood with their mouths gaping.”


Each executive who visited that glove shrine experienced an Aha! - I see! moment. The glove exhibit was so powerful it became a travelling road show which visited dozens of plants.

As a result, says Stegner, we were given a mandate for change. People would say “we must act now”, which of course we did and saved a great deal of money”