A Lofty Principle Brought to Life
September 07, 2021
How one person’s courage to speak up transformed our company, and sparked industry-wide change in the process.
5 min read
“One company can change an industry, and an industry can change the world.”
It’s a lofty belief – one first instilled in all Trane Technologies employees by our former CEO, Mike Lamach, and now energized by current CEO Dave Regnery. Admittedly, it may also be difficult to fully grip; How does one company change an industry? What does it take for an industry to change the world?
Embracing bold environmental and sustainability commitments undoubtedly plays a critical role, as does the adoption of societal goals that uplift people as equals. But change can also be seen in small ways, and sometimes all it takes is one person’s simple, yet powerful decision to raise their hand during a routine meeting and speak up about a patently offensive issue.
That was the scenario in May 2020 when one of our team members, Jean Skemp, Trane’s North America warranty process leader and home improvement show fanatic, was participating in a weekly team call. She started thinking about the phrase ‘master bedroom’, its offensive connotation and where similar terms are used in our technical processes. Though she didn’t know it at the time, questioning the objectionable phrase – used industry-wide in a variety of data and building automation system language – was the catalyst for sparking a far-reaching and deeply impactful transformation.
The BACnet protocol was developed in 1987 as a data communication tool for building automation and control networks. Adopted by companies all over the world, it allows building systems from different manufacturers to ‘talk to’ and work in conjunction with each other, exchanging data over a computer network – like when a smart thermostat and light switches talk to each other in a connected home.
One of these most common networks is called BACnet Master-Slave Token Passing (MSTP) – with tens of thousands references to it found in our product literature, training material, shipping documentation and more. While a commonplace and seemingly incidental technological term, the phrase is obviously unacceptable given the associated and divisive social history it references. And once Jean’s concern was raised, an undisputed decision to change it was made.
We started looking at other companies in our industry to see how they approached a change to this terminology but came up empty handed. We communicated with ASHRAE – one of the largest professional HVAC associations, and an industry leader in research, standards and guidelines – to gather their insights and likelihood of adopting a new term quickly. They were already considering changes, but we were wholeheartedly committed to fast-tracking the process.
As an organization that prides itself on making better happen, we felt a deep-seated responsibility to change the course of future standards – and launched a tremendous undertaking to do just that.
Change can also be seen in small ways, and sometimes all it takes is one person’s simple, yet powerful decision to raise their hand during a routine meeting and speak up about a patently offensive issue.
Changing extremely complicated, dense technical material is not something that’s often done, and combing through thousands of pieces of literature and tens of thousands of MSTP references across our entire network history was an inconceivably huge task. But there was an automatic consensus and shared sense of urgency to eliminate the offensive vocabulary, and our teams mobilized without hesitation. They painstakingly updated material with new ‘requester/non-requester’ language’ – knowing they would likely have to re-do their work all over again when ASHRAE officially adopted another term.
Once word got out to our employees their feedback was overwhelming, and though it was an obvious step, the project has become an incredibly meaningful demonstration of our commitment to diversity and inclusion. Aenis Harris, vice president of human resources for Trane Commercial HVAC North America, said we acknowledged early on that the project wouldn’t be easy, but inherently knew it was the right thing to do:
“Someone could have easily said, do you know how challenging this is going to be? To change industry terminology that has been used for over 30-years? But no one ever did. When something is brought to your attention, and it will not only improve a process but our culture, you don’t bat an eye. This is the perfect example of who we are and what we do. This all started with a simple conversation during a weekly team meeting – everyone has a voice here, and everyone should feel empowered to express an opportunity for improvement. All it takes is one person pointing out an absurdity to spark significant change.”
While she embraced that empowerment and boldly raised her concern, Jean Skemp says the project’s outcome shows the company’s deeply rooted commitment, from top to bottom, to making momentous change. “Leadership teams setting time aside in routine meetings for their teams to share a diversity and inclusivity moment or experience is what’s really driving the culture of communication around these topics,” she says. “One interaction can make an incredible difference.”
A few months after we updated our MSTP references to ‘requester/non-requester’, ASHRAE followed suit – ultimately landing on even more easily changeable terminology than we did. Though the full term is now ‘multi-drop serial bus token passing’, individual references to ‘master’ and ‘slave’ have been replaced with ‘manager’ and ‘subordinate’.
“ASHRAE is committed to the process of formally replacing discriminatory language and objectionable terminology that would distract from the technical progression of our diverse built environment community,” said 2021-22 ASHRAE President Mick Schwedler, P.E., Fellow ASHRAE, LEED AP. “We proactively support diversity, equity and inclusion as pillars of our Society’s core values and already have new language in the required public review process. This is one of several ways that we recognize and respect the vital contributions of our global membership and those who utilize ASHRAE technical resources.”
The new vocabulary has been approved by ASHRAE’s BACnet board and is expected to receive full authorization by early 2022, pending the final public review addendum. With a typical approval time of 2-3 years, having such an important industry association’s backing for a shift of this caliber in less than a year is truly remarkable.
When we embarked on this journey I wasn’t consciously thinking, one company can change an industry and one industry can change the world. It’s since dawned on me – that’s exactly what we did.
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