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Case study: Culture in action during a tractor fire

Monty Miller and Neil Michael for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2016
Culture in action during a tractor fire

Note: This is the final article in a five-part series for Progressive Dairyman about dairy culture. 

Nothing sends a chill through a dairy producer’s heart like a barn fire.



Yet a recent fire on a Midwest dairy offers a fascinating illustration of how building and cultivating a strong organizational culture turned a potential tragedy into a triumph of training and teamwork, with empowered team members stepping up, putting the farm first and getting the job done.

The flames

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, was a day much like any other at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy near Kewaunee, Wisconsin, with one huge exception: Late that afternoon, team member Ismael Chaves noticed the tractor used to push up feed in Barn 7 was on fire. If not contained immediately, the fire would quickly spread, threatening cows, facilities and equipment with potentially dreadful losses.

Unfortunately, barn fires are no stranger to the Pagel family. In 1985, they experienced a devastating fire that killed 48 cows, 50 heifers and destroyed their freestall barn. Not surprisingly, farm safety and fire prevention are a high priority for dairy owner John Pagel.

The dairy is located about 13 minutes from the nearest fire department, which underscores the need for preparedness by the dairy team.

The dairy developed a detailed farm safety and fire prevention program, which has been led by John’s daughter-in-law, Chase Pagel, since 2012. “This training for our crew really paid off that Friday,” Chase says.


The timeline

Thanks to this training, Ismael immediately called manager Santos Rodriguez, who was off-site and instructed Ismael to call 911. Ismael dialed as directed, then passed his phone to Rubin Gomez to speak to the emergency operator, since Rubin was more proficient in English.

Santos called Steve Witcpalek, dairy maintenance manager. Steve was attending a birthday party in the farm shop at the time of Santos’ call, and his crew sprang into action.

Steve, David Rodriguez of the maintenance crew and Josh Lambert of the maintenance crew and member of the Casco, Wisconsin, volunteer fire department grabbed shop fire extinguishers and quickly headed to the barns.

When they arrived at Barn 7, the tractor was completely engulfed, with flames rising about 10 feet in the air. In addition, the fire had severed electrical connections to the barn; the only light source was the burning tractor.

Due to the fire prevention planning, training and commitment, these individuals used their knowledge and skills to extinguish the fire.

  • Eugene “Geno” Brandl, responsible for monthly testing of all the fire extinguishers, knew exact extinguisher locations and rounded them up.

  • Ponderosa team members hauled the extinguishers to the front-line firefighters.

  • Josh’s firefighting experience taught him that all doors and ventilation should be closed to reduce air flow and electrical circuit-breaker boxes located and power shut down.

For 10 to 12 minutes, the team formed a supply line and fought the tractor fire. However, they soon ran out of fire extinguishers, but the fire was still burning.


The team turned to a bucket brigade, using the cows’ water source to ultimately get the fire under control. They had the fire extinguished when the local fire department arrived – about 15 minutes after receiving the call.

Return to normal

After the local fire department determined the fire was out, the organization went into action, cleaning up debris and providing fresh feed to the cows.

Team members cleaned up the insulation and roof material that had fallen into the pens, restarted the rotary parlor and milked the cows. According to herdsman Chris Szydel, the cows were not overly anxious and readily let down their milk, likely due to the quick return to their regular routine.

Thanks to a committed organizational culture with a plan, the dairy was back to normal 90 minutes after the fire was discovered.

More than words

Pagel’s Ponderosa has been diligently addressing their culture using the OCI for the past 18 months, and many elements of that work played out during the fire.

This cultural inventory measures 12 different behavioral norms or styles of behavior that might be expected of members of an organization. (See article 2, “The Measure of a Dairy’s Culture,” on page 27 of the October 2015 issue of Progressive Dairyman for more details.)

OCI and its components have become an integral part of the dairy’s daily actions – and not simply words. The assessment has empowered the dairy and its employees to more fully reach their individual and collective potential.

From concept to action

John Pagel has a sign in his office that says, “Failure is Not an Option,” a quote from Gene Kranz, flight director of Gemini and Apollo NASA space missions. This poster sends a pretty clear signal to all members of the dairy team to do their best. It also sums up the behavioral norm of “achievement” on the circumplex used in this cultural assessment process.

Additionally, Chase Pagel’s emphasis on knowledge and skills on fire and farm safety represents “self actualization” on the circumplex.

In fact, a number of OCI behavioral norms came into play the night of the fire.

For example, Santos, Steve, David and Josh were role models and likely crystalized formation of the spontaneous “self-directed” team and immediately had the commitment of all members, which is “humanistic-encouraging.”

Finally, as good fortune would have it, some “affiliative” behavior occurred in the shop, meaning team members were present to address the pending disaster.

The affiliative behavior also played out in the spontaneous self-directed team, as each individual contributed based on their knowledge and skills, which aligned with the operation’s values. These values are defined as CARS:

  • Communication
  • Accountability
  • Respect
  • Sustainability

Building organizational understanding of values and high-road behaviors has been a critical responsibility for staff support specialist Mona Pagel. The effectiveness of these efforts was clearly demonstrated as employees positively responded to the emergency situation and brought the dairy back to normal routines.

Finding balance with other styles in the circumplex is also critical.

  • Members of the dairy practiced Chase’s fire prevention plan, which is “conventional style.”

  • Some “dependent” behavior occurred when Ismael called his manager, Santos, but Santos had the confidence that Ismael and Rubin would call 911.

    It was fortunate that Ismael did call Santos, as Santos called Steve, who was in the process of leaving the shop for home. Their “dependent” behaviors played out in the success of fighting the fire.

  • Finally, on the passive side of the model, there was little to no “avoidance” detected, as no one went into the mode of “not my job.” Rather, everyone used high-road behaviors, a concept initiated from use of the brain pathways regarding team members’ sensory and cognitive preferences.

The team members of this dairy are primarily kinesthetic, then visual, auditory and sequential in their preferences. The bottom line is: When an action plan is created that takes sensory and cognitive preferences into account, members of the organization are much more likely to “work the plan,” which they did this day in an exceptional manner.

This situation demonstrates that deeply empowering employees has significant benefits. Had employees taken the low road, gone in to freeze and flight, practiced avoidant behaviors, waited for the fire department to arrive on a night the roads were covered with ice from a storm and air temperature hovered near zero degrees, the outcome would have been devastating.

The Pagels were very fortunate that the fire, while serious, did not end with cattle losses or employee injuries. Because culture can be understood, measured and enhanced, this dairy has reaped the benefits of continued investment in its people and culture.  PD

Monty Miller is the owner of International Performance Solutions, a consulting practice that engages in training, development and organizational change. Neil Michael is global tech services manager with Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition.

ILLUSTRATION: By Kristen Phillips.

The first article (Your dairy's culture is more than yogurt or opera) discussed the definition of cultures and implications of culture on dairy farms.

The second article (The measure of a dairy's culture) discussed data collected for 28 dairies and more than 450 participants using the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) results and the desire of all participants to create more constructive cultures and reduce defensive behaviors.

The third article (Move culture in a positive direction) shared learnings from two dairies leveraging their OCI results, methods and outcomes.

The fourth article (Culture assessments: How to gain an accurate appraisal) discussed conducting a meaningful culture assessment takes time, focus and a sincere commitment to learn and grow – by dairy producers and dairy employees.

Click here to read about the function of role clarity and the 'why' to reduce confusion.