Word Count : 2500 - 3000 words
WD-40 – it’s an almost universally known brand and core product. Their core product is synonymous
with being used to stop hinges squeaking, or loosening rust affected nuts and bolts. While none of us really think about it, it’s the sort of product that almost every house will have a tin of – either in a
shed, or under the laundry sink, or tucked away at the back of the cupboard underneath the kitchen
sink. Every home mechanic reaches for the can if there is a nut or bolt they can’t undo. Indeed, it was once noted that 4 out of 5 U.S. households had a least one can, let alone the amount sold to workshops, construction and mining companies.
However, that success meant that WD-40, as a company, was very much a one-trick pony, with
almost all its revenue from a single product and no imperative or need to innovate or progress.
However, as time progressed alternatives to WD-40 began to emerge: spray lithium grease, RP7, and
other generic penetrating oils started to show that reliance on a single product was dangerous, and
would see WD-40, as a company, highly vulnerable into the future.
This was the situation in the late 1990’s, when Garry Ridge took over as CEO of WD_40 Company.
Ridge had been employed at the company for over 10 years by the time he was appointed CEO.
Consequently, he was familiar with the culture of the organisation. However, holding a Master’s
2.Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego, Ridge was convinced that the
company both was vulnerable, but also had the potential to grow. As Ridge says, he “…wanted to
move from a U.S-focussed business to a growing global business”
In order to achieve this, he realised the culture of the organisation needed to change. Ridge notes
that WD-40 needed, “…a culture that had values that safeguarded our tribe [WD-40 Company’s
term for its talent] while giving them freedom. What became clear to me was that
micromanagement would not work. Micromanagement is not scalable. We had to create a
culture that gave people freedom & direction.”
More specifically, Ridge was aware that the bedrock of such a culture was one that championed
and emphasized learning – a dynamic culture focused on moving, challenging and innovating.
Such a culture is one that takes risks, and accepts each failure as an opportunity for learning. As
Ridge notes (Taylor, 2016):
“We had such huge growth opportunities,” he told me, “but people were afraid to step out of
their roles. The fear of failure is the biggest fear in the world. We had to go from failure to
Ridge’s commitment to this philosophy, and the importance of developing a learning
organization, is evidenced in WD-40’s statement on its website ( https://wd40company.com/our-
“WD-40 Company is committed to the ongoing development of its tribe. We strongly believe in strengthening our tribe from within. Building a deep bench of great talent and future leaders is one of our strategic drivers and it’s critical to our continued success. All tribe members interested in learning and growing have access to comprehensive development and training programs, formal educational support, and coaching”.
What is key here is that, beyond commitment, WD-40 states that ALL tribe (staff) members interested in learning and growing are supported in a variety of ways. In addition to formal training and development, formal educational support and coaching are also provided. Indeed Ridge places this as critical to senior management to champion, with WD-40 again stating on the same webpage as before: The number one responsibility of our tribal leaders is to share knowledge and inspire ongoing learning ( https://wd40company.com/our-tribe/learning-teaching )
3.Ridge further unpacked reasons why people in organisations, good, committed staff, may be reluctant to learn and try new, novel, creative or innovative approaches. Ridge suggests that people are concerned about failing or making mistakes, which prevents them from trying new things and learning. Ridge sought to change this mentality by changing how a mistake or failure was viewed at WD-40. Rather than seen as a failure, Ridge refers to these as “learning moments”, which can be positive or negative outcomes from any situation. Critically, Ridge emphasizes that these moments need to be shared openly and freely within the organization, so all can benefit from the moment and learn from it. To allow for this, Ridge goes to great lengths to ensure his staff (or tribe members) are safe to have these learning moments – to experiment. This leads to personal learning and growth, and grow at the organizational level when their findings are reported back to all staff. Thus learning is championed and WD-40 with Ridge at its helm “walks the talk”, of committing to support innovation and learning, even if the outcome is not positive because, no negative outcome is truly negative, as it leads to learning and greater knowledge and development across the organization.
This approach is emphasized at the leadership level, as well as the general staff level at WD-40.
Ridge leads by example, stating that openness to learning requires the leaders themselves to acknowledge their need to learn.
Ridge noted that one of the most crucial turning points in his own career was when he realized
he didn’t have to KNOW everything as a CEO – that there were staff who were more knowledgable in many areas than he was, and that he could learn from them. This had two notable benefits, according to Ridge – firstly, he could relax and be free to learn, to pick up new ideas, approaches and information, and that he COULD make mistakes and that’s OK, as long as it stimulates learning. Secondly, he suggests that a leader at any level that can acknowledge that they don’t know something, creates vulnerability. And that vulnerability allows them to learn, rather than have all the answers. Further it allows other staff to teach the leader, which further perpetuates a culture of learning and growing across the entire organization. Ridge notes this is particularly apparent currently. As the speed of technological change has increased, it is often the leaders, or the tribal elders in Ridge’s vernacular, that have the potential to learn more from the younger employees.
Ridge is also aware of the “paradox of expertise” – that the most successful companies and individuals often fail over time as they have become so good at what they do, that they often can’t see new possibilities, potentialities or opportunities. Kodak, who filed for bankruptcy about a decade ago, are an example. After developing the digital camera in 1976, Kodak ignored it, feeling that traditional film would always dominate the market. Likewise, Blockbuster video turned down an opportunity to purchase Netflix. A few years later, this market leader too was
4.Bankrupt. Accordingly, Ridge is aware that the best leaders and organisations are the most
virulent learners, constantly wanting to learn, develop and improve themselves, their staff and their organization. (Taylor, 2016).
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. Organisational Learning is defined as “the process of creating, sharing, diffusing and
applying knowledge in organisations” (Saks & Haccoun, 2010, p35). Based on the case
study, as well as background research on WD-40 you have carried out, how do believe
WD-40 meets (or doesn’t meet) this definition? Use theory to provide rationale and
explanations for your answer.
2. Learning can occur in both formal and informal ways. From your research on WD-40 and Ridge, identify TWO formal and TWO informal ways you feel learning may be occurring for the ‘tribe’ in WD-40.
3. Explain how WD-40 and Ridge’s approach to organizational learning meets (or doesn’t meet) the features of instruction and the work environment that facilitate learning and transfer of training (Noe, 2020, p.177). Rather than go through the list in its entirety, I want you to identify at least ONE feature that Ridge’s approach facilitates or meets, and ONE feature where you think Ridge’s approach to creating a learning culture may fail to facilitate learning and transfer of training.
4. Conduct further research into Garry Ridge and WD-40. Consider how WD-40 operationalises their learning into an integrated systems approach (also called a multi-level systems approach). What features of their learning embed learning at all levels (organisational, group and individual). Is this process one-way or two-way?