FAVI (part 1): How Zobrist Broke Down FAVI’s Command-and-Control Structures

The story of how the CEO of FABI created one of the world’s most inspiring manufacturing plants.

Written by Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, originally published in Corporate Rebels


On an early Sunday morning we arrive in the North of France. We are here to visit Bucket List hero Jean François Zobrist in his hometown in the middle of the Picardy region. We meet Jean François at his house and are welcomed by Lula, an enthusiastic Labrador. We settle down on his couches and start to get to know each other. We discuss his past to better understand how he ended up being the anything-but-ordinary CEO of FAVI. While the story unfolds we learn how he created one of the world’s most inspiring manufacturing plants. In what becomes a day filled with anecdotes, we get a good and surprisingly funny insight into ‘the FAVI-way’; from his unannounced start as CEO to provocative metaphors of prostitutes.

One of the reasons the story of FAVI is important to us, is because it breaks another stereotype.

A lot of people believe that working based on lots of freedom and trust cannot work in a factory or production setting. FAVI proves them terribly wrong and shows how powerful an organization can become once it unleashes the full potential of its employees.

It is therefore that our meeting with Jean François Zobrist was on top of the list. In this blog post and in (soon-to-be-published) part 2 you’ll read all about how Zobrist successfully transformed the organization.

FAVI and Jean François Zobrist

FAVI is a manufacturer and supplier of technical parts for various industries, amongst others the automotive industry. It was founded in 1957 and has gained considerable attention since the 1980’s for their unique way of working. Since 1983, former CEO Jean François Zobrist has radically changed the way FAVI is organized. He transformed FAVI from a traditional command-and-control organization to a liberated company based on freedom, trust and equality. The astonishing results of his approach speak for itself (and are discussed below). The quotes in this article are a combination of quotes from his book and our talks with him.

Jean François was literally dropped (see quoted text below) at FAVI by his boss Max Rousseau, for who he had been working for years at that time. Jean François’ leadership style seems very much influenced by his former boss. Jean François: “We had the right to fail, but only under two conditions: (1) be honest, and (2) be sincere. Max was constantly testing, measuring and judging you. And then he would decide, only based on his intuition, to grant or refuse you his trust. But when he decides to grant you his trust, he would grant you his entire trust without restrictions. Many times he told me: I think your stuff is bullshit, but if you believe in it, do it!”

A most unusual start

Jean François: “I entered a huge office. Max asked me to take place in a big armchair, as you can only find in the office of the director. Without any formality Max placed a golden coin of 20 dollar on his beautiful desk and said: “I’m not superstitious, but this will bring you luck”. I straightened in the armchair, thinking he was about to complement or praise me. I knew it was different when he gave me the book of Auguste Detoeuf called ‘Barenton Cofiseur’.

Then I thought I had made a mistake, because a few years ago I had made a stupid remark during lunch. After this remark Max had directly subscribed me to the journal ‘Review of two worlds’ and told me: “Boy, you’re lacking culture!”. After receiving both the golden coin and the book of Barenton I was expecting an unpleasant surprise. But Max said nothing and stood up. He walked around his desk and told me: “Follow me”. I asked: “Where are we going?”. He answered: “You will see”.

We walked outside where his helicopter was already awaiting us. He took the seat next to the pilot and I sat in the back. I was relaxed, not thinking about much and mostly enjoying the landscape. An hour later we arrived above FAVI in Picardy and landed on the field just in front of the factory. Dominique (the CEO of that time) had heard the noise and arrived immediately next the helicopter. Max told him: “Gather the staff”.

When all the staff arrived, around 100 employees, Max said: “Dominique did an excellent job, and he wants to leave. It is his right, so I let him go.” (Max did not like it when somebody was leaving him) Then Max turned to me, pointed at me and told the crowd: “This is his successor!”. Without any other comment he went back to his helicopter and left immediately. I stayed behind with Dominique in front of all the staff. The book of Barenton in one hand and the golden coin in the other. I only then realized something important had just happened.

Dominique asked me if I had been expecting anything, and I answered his genuine: “not at all”. I had my flat in Reims. My daughter was going to school in Reims. My wife was working there as well and I was the president and trainer of the local skydiving club. I had never thought about leaving Reims. Anyway, I wanted to give it a try and Dominique helped me to find a room in a local hotel. I informed my wife and let some days pass without knowing what to do. The following three weeks I did not get any news from Max. Then he called me and said: “They haven’t eaten you? Then you will stay…”

This is how I became the new CEO, against my will, but not completely in an unknown place. Fortunately in the past few years I had been at FAVI plenty of times for ‘marketing’ and ‘metallurgic’ visits. During those visits I had developed a powerful and honest friendship with the ones of whom I was now the ‘boss’…”

The touristic approach

When Jean François was presented at FAVI as the new CEO, he first started with a 4-month ‘tourist period’. He decided to learn by observation only; to do and touch nothing along the way. He settled down in an empty office and spent his first days just touring the factory. He started talking to everyone and attended all meetings without participating in them. Soon he realized that at every workstation the manager in charge was following him around like an obedient dog.

Jean François: “What was funny was that when I was crossing from one workshop to another, the first manager stopped exactly at the border and the next manager would take over from there. At one point I decided to gather all the managers and told them: I understand very well that each of you pissed around his workshop or department. But what you didn’t see is that when I arrived, after getting out of the helicopter, I pissed all around the factory. So, I’m at home everywhere.”

Making the change

After the first 4 months of his ‘tourist period’, Jean François started what turned out to be a long transformation period. He began this trajectory by clarifying his personal strategy to his management team: “First, you have to know that I will never leave by myself. But I will offer you my resignation letter every 5 years because I know that power can get you mad. I want to provide you with the opportunity to act in the best interest of the organization when something like that would happen to me. Moreover, I can feature the qualities and weaknesses that are well suited for the organization at this particular moment, but the same qualities and weaknesses might become a burden at another time in history. And at last, I do not want to do anything anymore in three years from now.” Interesting enough the last point proved to be the most difficult one to realize. It took Jean François 4 years to actually start doing nothing.

It all starts with dreams

Jean François: “I knew that we had entire freedom from Max Rousseau, so I started dreaming. I was dreaming of a company where the worker would become the operator. A place where operators would be able to organize themselves, adjust machines themselves and auto-control themselves.

At that time, employees were clocking in and out and received sanctions for any delay. But I was dreaming of a company where everyone would naturally respect the working hours without a bell or control. The operators would be fully conscious about the fact that they were working for a client, not for a badging system or a boss. I was dreaming of a place where instead of putting sanctions on being late, we would inquire the reason why somebody was late. Because nobody is late on purpose. And if needed, we would adjust the time schedules, for example for a young father whose baby had been crying all night.

At that time, we were awarding bonuses every month, up to 20% of the monthly salary. Most of the bonuses were awarded based on the mood of the direct supervisor. I was dreaming of a place where the bonuses were integrated in the base salary and I was dreaming of a system where we would share our results equally over everyone.

At that time, there was an artificial partial unemployment planned from workshop to workshop to maintain a ‘healthy pressure’ on the employees. I was dreaming of a place where there would be no more unemployment. And would such a thing happen in worst case scenario then everyone would suffer the consequences, not only the operators.

At that time, everything was locked in our warehouses, including consumables and safety equipment. I was dreaming of a place where everything would be unlocked by default. Even the offices. Everyone should be able to have access to the tools that are necessary to perform their duty.

At that time, we were only demanding hands and muscles from our employees and only the boss and sales manager knew the clients. I was dreaming of a place where everyone could use his brain and his heart. And where everyone within the company would know their clients, could visit them and even meet them.

I was simply dreaming of a place where everybody would behave like being at home, nothing more and nothing less.”

A series of symbolic acts followed. First Jean François decided to brick up the big window overlooking the production floor. This act was seen by the employees as a symbol that profound changes were about to happen. Jean François: “Looking back, this symbolic gesture created the first levels of trust.” The next steps were:

  • removing the time-clocking system;
  • unlocking all storage rooms, cabinets and cupboards;
  • making the beverages in the vending machines freely available for all employees;
  • abolishing the annual lunch which was exclusively held for management;
  • removing the bonus system;
  • eliminating all kind of departments such as human resources, planning and purchasing.

As you can see, FAVI got rid of all methods and structures that prevented the operators to think and act in a freely manner. All the above actions are based on the belief that humans are inherently good. But it wasn’t just his belief in the power of liberated employees. Most of the described actions make financial sense too, see boxed text below.

The cost of control

Jean François: “One day while walking around the factory I came across Alfred. He was waiting in front of the storage room and I asked him why he was there. He told me: “I have to change my gloves. I have a coupon from my boss and my old gloves.” The rule was: when an employee needed new gloves he first had to show his old gloves to his boss to receive a coupon from him or her. With this coupon he needed to go to the storage room. On the way to the storage room the employee was chatting a bit before ringing the door. Then he was waiting for the employee in charge of the storage room to come. He would receive new gloves in exchange for the coupon and the old gloves. The whole process would take up 10 minutes. I then went to the accounting department and learned that the machine on which Alfred was working was costing 600 Franc/hour, so 10 Franc/minute. The gloves were only costing us 5,80 Franc! It made me realize that this process was making the gloves a bit expensive. And that without promoting stealing, even if the employee was taking a pair from time to time for gardening, everyone would largely win.”

Even though Jean François believed that humans are good, he realized that the organization chart was still built on the assumption that humans are bad. Jean François: “Based on the works by McGregor and Maslow I enjoyed designing a different organization chart built on the assumption that ‘the human is considered good’. People always tend to act as they are considered. If we open the spaces of freedom, people will start developing themselves and they will set themselves ambitious targets.”

This belief turned out to be true. The freedom that Jean François created within FAVI led to amazing results. Those results, and other important changes he made, are discussed in part 2 of this blog post.

Part 2 of this blogpost re-published here in Enlivening Edge Magazine.

Permission to republish granted by the author.

Featured Image/Graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine