We had a guy at the factory years ago who called himself “Sam” (that wasn’t his real name). He worked so hard that he had a constant patina of sweat beads glossing his bald head. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very
good at what he did. No amount of energy or effort could compensate for the scrapped product he continually accumulated.
One day I shared a story from my past with my boss, Irene. When I was 13, I got a dishwashing job at Devon Plaza which I kept until I was 16. During that period, I watched grill-cooks come and go. Burger-flipping at a
bar is not a lucrative position and doesn’t attract premium employees.
They were usually in their mid-twenties. When rush-hour would hit on Friday and Saturday nights they would become frantic, overwhelmed with orders coming in from multiple waitresses, shouting dictates to me to prepare salads or garlic bread or baked potatoes.
Then they hired Bill: a gentle, relaxed, retired guy from Florida. On Friday and Saturday nights waitresses would burst through the door with handfuls of tickets, pointing out specifics that customers had requested,
then dashing back out to the bar to fill drink orders.
Bill would look at the stack of tickets and nod, step back and light a cigarette, then start arranging the tickets on the counter. “Well, let’s see,” he’d start, “Looks like we’ve got 3 well-done fillet mignons. You want to grab those out of the cooler for me, Mikey? Grab 2 New York strips while you’re at it.” Then he’d put his cigarette in the ashtray and say, “Looks like there’s 8 orders of garlic bread altogether. I’m gonna need some BBQ ribs ready for the broiler in about 7 minutes. Got those salads? Good. OK, 2 ribeyes, another fillet and 3 more strips and we should be good on steaks.”
It was as casual as casual could be. Under the same circumstances I’d watched aspiring young chefs become apoplectic. It was a walk in the park for Bill. All he did was organize the tasks before him, prioritize
them, and then methodically execute them. There was no need for panic or frustration. And Bill was hands-down the best cook I ever worked with. Everyone raved about his cooking.
I shared this story with Irene and told her that his example greatly influenced the way I conduct myself at work.
I wasn’t sucking-up to Irene. I was a “Lead Man:” entrusted with assigning jobs and machines in my department, on my shift. Frequent dialog to coordinate with my manager was part of the job. A week later, Irene asked me to take on the additional responsibility of being Lead Man over another department, concurrent with my previous responsibilities. She specifically elucidated that my story about Bill impressed upon her that I could handle it.
Irene moved on up the ladder and was replaced by another manager, Phil. He visited me one day and said, “Mike, I notice you spend a lot of time out of your area. What’s up with that?” I explained to him that my shift began at 3PM, and that he went home at 5PM. Typically, I was going to set up at least 3 machines during my shift. So the first thing I did was analyze the work scheduled for my area. The next thing was leave the department to gather the blueprints, fixtures and tooling for the first 3 jobs. All those items were located outside my area. It’s called “kitting.” About the time he was going home for the day, I’d assembled all the accouterments I’d need to work for the rest of my shift.
“But,” he rebounded, “When you are in your area, you don’t appear to be very busy.”
“You mean like Sam?” I replied. “I can be like Sam if you want me to. I know how to look real busy.”
“No. I don’t want you to be like Sam. That’s not what I meant.”
“Look, I found out when I started this job that when I hurry I make mistakes. Haste makes waste. My job requires thinking. Sometimes, when I don’t look busy, I’m doing math, or planning. But I’m doing my job.”
Phil walked away frustrated.
I’ve been doing the same job – programming, setting-up, operating and troubleshooting CNC metal-cutting machinery – for over 20 years. Managers come and go. CEOs come and go. Ownership changes hands. The nature of my job doesn’t change.
Irene was the only manager I ever had who understood that looking busy didn’t equate to quality productivity. Every time I get a new manager, I can see it in his eyes: he’ll stop in the aisle, scrutinize my activity, and think, “That guy doesn’t look like he’s doing anything. I better go over there and instill some motivation in him.”
About the time I’ve got him trained, he’s replaced with fresh meat for me to spar with over and over again. It’s all part of the job.
It’s a pattern I’ve recognized that has manifold ramifications. The better a man becomes at his job, the more efficient he becomes. The more efficient he becomes, the more casual he appears to be. He does his job with ease. Salaried individuals with college degrees cast one glance at him and surmise, “That guy’s job is too easy. He’s not earning his pay. I’d better go over there and mess with him.” No, you doof. It’s not easy. He’s mastered it. Your meddling de-motivates him causing a down-shift in performance.
(That’s actually why it’s important to recruit supervisors from the plant floor rather than fresh blood from Krannert School of Management. In myriad instances, experience trumps protocol.)
Then they hire new employees. Bob’s going to retire in 3 weeks. They’ve watched Bob work and concluded that his job is easy, so they attach a new-hire to him and say, “Bob, meet Jerry. Show him what you do.” Go get yourself a cup of coffee, Jerry: Bob’s got 3 weeks to pump 3 decades worth of knowledge and experience into your head, and he’s so close to retirement, he couldn’t give a rat’s-tail less how much of it you retain.
It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself to the degradation of professionalism. Looking busy doesn’t equal being busy, which doesn’t equal quality or productivity. Outcome trumps aesthetics, profit-wise.
Someday, I’ll meet another Irene.
Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published on JConline.com, December 16, 2014