Say what you will about guys like Carl Icahn, but you can't deny that they usually manage to get the attention of management and shareholders when they show up. While you can question Icahn's motivations for his involvement in the likes of Mylan Labs (NYSE:MYL), Temple-Inland (NYSE:TIN), and other past positions, some good seems to be coming of it in the case of Kerr-McGee (NYSE:KMG).

Despite a strong reputation for deepwater drilling, Kerr-McGee has a record of underperformance relative to other large diversified energy companies like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Total SA (NYSE:TOT). Though some of that performance deficit has no doubt been due to the higher risk of some of the company's operations, some analysts have in the past openly questioned management's commitment to shareholder value.

With the revelation of Icahn's interest in early March, along with a series of "suggestions" for management, things seem to be changing.

Since early March, Kerr-McGee has reaffirmed its intention to sell or spin off its chemicals business -- a transaction that could be worth around $9 per share. The company also announced a share buyback program, and as of March 23, roughly one-quarter of that buyback has been completed.

Now, that's not to say that all of Icahn's ideas were good. When you consider his request for two board seats and his suggestion that the company should sell around 20% of its total proven reserves to generate cash for distribution shareholders, words like "loony" come to mind. The suggested asset sale was a particularly bad idea: It would no doubt give Icahn a nice wad of cash as return on his investment in Kerr-McGee, but it would also leave the company in precarious shape for the future.

Kerr-McGee is making progress with improving the company (at least from a shareholder's point of view), but there's no doubt that it still has some work left to do. Still, given that the folks who make up management have already taken some positive steps, I'm inclined to believe that they "get it" and that better results could be on the way. If the presence of Icahn ultimately makes Kerr-McGee a leaner, smarter, and more shareholder-conscious company, he might actually have done some good after all.

Total SA is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. To see more ideas, take a free trial subscription to the Income Investor newsletter.

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).