Looking back on a career of labored days

Memories from 40 years in the labor force:

When I was a bagboy

When I showed up for my first day of work as a bagboy, I had the feeling almost immediately that this might not be a good fit. There seemed to be too many handlers, too many people with their own agenda, too many “professionals” telling me what to do and how to do it. I’d be spending most of time working behind the cashiers, collecting frozen dinners and canned goods as they rolled down the conveyor belt, and placing them in paper bags so they could be transported to the customer’s car.

There were so many rules that simply ran contrary to the good common sense I had accumulated in my sixteen years. The heavier items had to be placed in the bottom of the bag while the chips and baked goods and pretzels were placed on top. If a particular bag was going to be too heavy, I had to double-bag the merchandise. I should offer to wheel the shopping cart out to the parking lot and load the purchases into the trunk. I could accept a tip if it were offered, but I had to say “thank you.”

This was not at all what I was “wired” to do. What was so wrong about mashing everything together into one bag, using my feet if necessary to compress the softer items? If something was ruined in the process, they’d just have to buy more, which seemed to be a good thing for our capitalist system. Why couldn’t our elderly clientele carry their own damn six-packs of generic Bilt-Rite Cola to their vehicles? Why did the cardboard boxes that were no longer needed have to be compressed for proper disposal? Just because the tree-huggers said we couldn’t throw them into the vacant field behind the store?

Crusading college journalist

I’ve been an aficionado of proper spelling my entire life. In elementary school, I won the fifth-grade spelling bee, advancing to the school-wide finals against a taller, stronger and more athletic sixth-grader who “posterized” me when I stumbled on accrued while he monster-dunked inchoate to take the championship. My two best subjects throughout grade school were spelling and geography, and I was crestfallen to learn from the vocational counselor in high school that you couldn’t enter either subject as a career.

With my dreams dashed of opening a specialty boutique where customers could ask how to spell the capital of North Dakota, I instead went to college to study journalism. It was the early seventies and Florida State was gripped with the revolutionary zeal of the times. However, as much as we questioned the establishment and cultural mores and business-as-usual and why Mary Bess wouldn’t allow me to touch her chest, we never challenged the time-tested rules of written communication. Our manifestos demanding the resignation of the president and ROTC OFF CAMPUS NOW! were carefully edited and exquisitely punctuated.

Only once during my tenure as an editor of the school paper did we dare to question The Man (Noah Webster) on the subject of proper spelling, and that was at the prompting of The Woman. Amy Rogers was head of the local feminist coalition, and came to my office one day demanding that as good liberals we abandon the misogynistic term “woman” in our reporting of campus news.

“We repudiate the word, because it comes from the origin ‘womb-man,’” she told me. “We prefer ‘womyn’ instead, and strongly urge you to prefer it too.”

We convened an editorial meeting and debated for several hours the merits of the request. Ultimately, I moved that the proposal was stupid and got a slim majority (all the guys) to agree with me. Then we closed down the paper and had a sit-in, just for the fun of it.

Facilitator of quality, whatever that means

Part of my life in the corporate world has been spent as a “quality facilitator.” Don’t worry, I didn’t know what it meant either.

About 20 years ago, there was this business fad going around that preached the Japanese had figured out the process for building quality into a product rather than tacking it on at the end in the form of a high-priced ad campaign.

Before this quality revolution hit our company, I was running a three-person inspection operation in our shipping department. Our job was two-fold: inspect components before they went into the final product to remove defects early and then, when that failed, scramble around to find a few good items to send to our client’s buyer. Even though everybody who knew anything about our process admitted there were unavoidable variations, we had to reinforce the notion that perfection was possible.

Sometimes this fooled the client and sometimes it didn’t. When we failed, we had to travel to distant warehouses to go through all 10,000 products to remove whatever defect had gotten through. The most memorable trip was a weeklong visit to Brooklyn. We spent five days looking for a spot on a picture of the CEO’s face that didn’t actually exist in real life. (I always thought it would be easier to put the spot on him rather than remove it from his picture, but couldn’t convince my boss).

Upper management eventually became convinced that this was a sloppy way to run a quality operation and decided to eliminate the inspection department entirely. For the next two years, I worked with a new quality manager whose importance to the business was evidenced by the fact that she had her office right next to the president. She was given the power to hire a consultant who trained four facilitators and group of about 25 other workers who learned how to find the root of a problem, brainstorm ideas for fixing it, then test these to make sure they worked. I stood next to an easel while these discussions were going on, making notes of the participants’ observations, and coaching them through the problem-solving process. This is what was called “facilitation” but felt more like taking stenography from an angry mob.

The president assigned us four specific problems to solve. My group had what were called “counts.” Incredibly, our processes were so out of control that we were unable to produce the exact quantities our customers ordered. Team members were chosen regardless of their knowledge of the process, the logic being that outsiders would be have a detached common sense that kept the insiders on track. In reality, the outsiders remained quiet and volunteered mostly for the team’s clerical duties, like typing up the minutes and bringing bagels. The experts would attend the weekly sessions, or not, depending on how busy their departments were. One week they’d express one opinion, then the next week they’d say something different, then the next they wouldn’t show up. People were alternately passionate and indifferent to others’ opinions, or even their own. It was a mess.

Part of my job was to put a successful face on this fiasco. The group would bicker and stall and change direction and give up, all in the course of one hour, and I’d have to describe how “dynamic” the session had been. Our team leader had decided on day one how he would solve the problem and bullied the group toward this end. But we had to put up the façade that we were gathering data before making a final decision. So he coerced everyone into a plan that required counts to be recorded at each step of production and a form to be filled out when these numbers were off. Unfortunately, nobody could convince the front-line machine operators to be bothered with such nonsense.

“I thought we had won World War II specifically so we didn’t have to listen to the Japanese,” said one of the older workers.

Playing corporate games

I’ve been involved in a lot of game-playing during my career. I’m referring to the exercises in what’s generally called “career development,” where a group of employees sit around a table (or a bush or an abandoned fire training tower) and get run through a series of humiliating workouts. If you’re lucky, you only feel stupid; otherwise, you end up “developed,” a painful condition where you exhibit a positive attitude all out of proportion to your circumstances.

Generally, these outings are designed to promote creativity and build camaraderie among the troops. You’re taken out of your normal environment and put in a setting where you are encouraged to think outside the box, dare to be great, or push the envelope. I believe that thinking outside the box is over-rated, and remind my cat of this every time he strays over the edge of his litter container.

A common method to get group members to talk freely is to mentally transport them to a different place in time. In one session I went through, staged for what were perceived to be future leaders, we were told to draw a picture of where we saw ourselves in ten years. The only thing we all had in common was that we imagined a future very far away from the company we were supposed to be leading. My drawing had me sitting on a dock next to a huge satellite dish that retrieved documents from outer space that I would then proofread while my son sat next to me fishing. Poor artist that I am, my group’s facilitator interpreted the scene as someone working at NASA directing a mission to Mars, with my son playing the part of a tethered robot. Close enough, I figured.

A similar exercise was done with another group a few years later. They were told to think exactly ten years into the past. Headlines of the exact day were read aloud and a hit song from the period was played to tickle everyone’s memory. We heard funny tales from high school, a story about a surprise birthday party and, from one young woman who could barely hold back her tears, a recounting of the day after her mother was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The brainstorming wasn’t especially inspired after that.

I also had an opportunity to spend a few years as an excellence trainer myself. During each day-long quality awareness session, we played a game that demonstrated just-in-time production techniques. Each six-person team was given a collection of interlocking blocks and asked to produce exact replicas of a certain configuration. They were required to re-engineer their process several times to achieve more and better widgets crafted each time with fewer people. At the end, they could do their very best work with only two people instead of six. Invariably, some participant would learn the wrong lesson and ask what happened to the four people who no longer had jobs. We were told to make some vague hint about how maybe they could work in marketing.

The most enjoyable game I can recall from my experience with this garbage was the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. This was something you could do in the privacy of your own personal space, without having to “team-build” with your half-witted coworkers. You’d answer a battery of questions about your preferences and then be put into one of 16 categories that labeled you as an extrovert, a thinker, a perceiver, an innovator, a molester, an invertebrate, etc.

One thing I have learned from all these corporate games is how to game the system. Since no judgments are made, no answers are wrong and no ideas are too ridiculous, you can offer up the most absurd input. “Yes, Davis, your idea about twirling on our tippy-toes while talking to clients on the phone is a very innovative one,” the trainer says. “Let’s write that up on the whiteboard.”

Compliance training: You have to do it

I had to do sexual harassment training at work last week. Technically, I guess it was training on how to avoid sexual harassment.            

Our company requires all employees to do this on-line education once a year, primarily so we know there’s a line which we must not cross in our relationships with co-workers. But also so the lawyers are satisfied. If an individual is ever accused of misconduct, the corporation then has documentation that we were specifically told not to grope or fondle each other. “Not only was he told,” they can say, “but he also scored an 89% on an assessment of his understanding of the rules. That’s a high ‘B’, you know.”            

You’re supposed to read some material, then take a test on what you just read, as you progress through the hour-long course. However, most of the answers are so obvious that people skip right to the exam. Here’s one example:            

“John tells his employee Sue: ‘I will protect your job and not select you to be in the next workforce reduction if you sleep with me.’”            

“Is this sexually harassing behavior? Yes or no?”            

You’d have to be a U.S. senator to be dimwitted enough to get this stuff wrong.

Training overseas

My first overseas business trip came in the summer of 2003. I was to spend three weeks in the city of Bangalore, India, a week on each shift, training the eager young workforce.

It was a 28-hour journey. Because I can barely sleep on an airplane, I arrived with a very special case of jet lag, compounded by the fact that our arrival time was 2 a.m. local. It’s not unsettling enough to find yourself halfway around the world for the first time; you also have to go through Indian immigration in the middle of the night. I emerged from the airport expecting to see my host holding my name on a sign, but instead was confronted by a sea of faces desperately begging for handouts.

When I finally found Akshay, he led me to the driver who would take us to my hotel. Even at that early hour of the morning, the sights and sounds of the subcontinent were overpowering. Between the heat, the pollution, the traffic, the intense overcrowding and the profound poverty, it didn’t even feel like the same planet. But they did have some cool cows.

I had about a day to get acclimated before I’d have to report to work. The office was right around the corner from the hotel in a complex that also held what the locals called a “mall” but what appeared to me as a warren of flea market stalls. To get there from the hotel, I could cut through a traffic-choked alley that served as the parking lot for hundreds of motorcycles belonging to the workforce, or venture out onto the street. I tried the street once before deciding that being struck by a scooter would be preferable to being hit by a taxi, then run over by a bus, then asphyxiated by an auto-rickshaw, then flipped into a poisonous river, then set upon by beggars.

The office was still being set up when I arrived the first Monday, so I was shunted to a small desk off to the side and given a single individual to present my carefully prepared training spiel. He and all the people I worked with were very friendly, accommodating and eager to learn, or at least I think that’s what they said. Their heavily accented English had me agreeing with stuff I had no idea they were talking about. I was further confused by the Indian custom of wagging the head from side to side as a way of saying “yes, I agree with you.” They need to cut that out – it’s very disconcerting.

By the third day I was still not sleeping well, I was growing tired of all the exotic atmosphere and I was starting to think I needed an exit strategy. Would I irrevocably damage my career if I arranged to return home immediately?

Fortunately, I got sick instead. The doctor who came to my hotel room to treat my nausea gave me a pretty good once-over, and left two medicines I’d never heard of before. “Take two of this every four hours and one of this every six hours,” he instructed. Or something like that. I just did the math and split the difference, and for some reason got better.

Once I was back on my feet, the second week had arrived and I was supposed to be working with the second-shift crew. I made a brave effort with the unfamiliar evening hours; I kept telling myself it was actually day shift back in the U.S., but my self wasn’t convinced.

When the third week rolled around and my third-shift trainees waited to hear my presentation, I gave up all pretense of doing a good job. When 4 a.m. rolled around and I faced the prospect of another four hours of me wagging my tongue and them wagging their heads, I had to decide whether to brave the motorcycle alley in the dead of night or hang in there. I braved the night and headed back to the hotel.

The end of my stay had finally arrived, and I was thrilled to be heading back to the U.S. I flew into Philadelphia and drove to my hotel on an unusually cool and sweet-smelling late summer day. (I guess you have to go half way around the world to consider Philadelphia sweet-smelling).

Now it’s five years later and the fruits of my labors training abroad have ripened, fallen to the ground and turned into a rotting mush that I can’t get off my shoes. I definitely enjoyed the experience of working with the people I met; I’m just not too thrilled that I did such a good job that now my own job is threatened. Globalization has a way of sucking on a personal level while doing a lot of good at a much higher level. I’d just rather be seeing that broader picture from 30,000 feet on a business-class flight for a month of training in Paris – not too likely in the current business environment.

So called “Foundations” training

The silliest and most recent corporate development experience took place about four years ago and was called “Foundations” training. I still have the workbook from this two-day offsite jerk-a-thon that claimed to be “transforming the business” with the bright idea to “be here now” while you were working. Mixed among vaguely appropriate quotes from the likes of Socrates, Galileo, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and Willie Mays (?!) were the variety of typical group encounter exercises I hadn’t done since freshman orientation at college. There was a testing and categorization of personality types, something called the “broken squares game,” and a listing of the qualities of a good leader (I wrote “patience” in my workbook) versus a bad leader (“impatience”). But the overriding theme throughout was this need to “be here now” or, as the workbook put it, “Be Here Now™”. My notes in the final exercise of the second day – called “insights and action steps” – reveal the depths of bitterness to which I had sunk:

–“I will assume good intent”
–“I will look at situations from different perspectives”
–“I will be here now”
–“I will be someplace else later”
–“Next week I will be on vacation”
–“Tomorrow, I will be here now, but it won’t be now, it will be then then”
–“The ‘now’ is all we have now; later, we will have the ‘later’”
–“I will be here now even if I’m laid-off later”

And finally, to the strains of tinkling new-age music, I referenced the “broken squares game”: “The broken squares can be equated to the broken lives we lived before ‘Foundations’ training.”

Renting my body for science

So it’s come to this: as I struggle to keep up in a declining industry in a declining economy at a declining age, I’ve turned to offering my body up for medical research in return for $40 now and another $10 a month each time I call in and tell them I’m still alive.

I’ve volunteered to receive an anti-shingles vaccine that’s already been proven safe and/or effective for populations over age 60 and now the drug company wants to see if 50-somethings can survive it as well. It’s all above board and totally without risk, I’ve been assured by the Internet. Because it’s a double-blind study, I actually have only a 50% chance of receiving the real vaccine, but a 100% chance of receiving the money and feeling vaguely cheap as well as a little woozy only an hour or so after the procedure.

I arrive at an office that looks like any office park medical facility, and fill out the requisite paperwork. No, I’ve never had cancer, diabetes, polio, HIV, hepatitis, or a desire to do this before. Yes, I’m willing to pretend to read 12 pages of fine-print risks and sign at several different spots that I won’t sue if anything goes wrong. I finish the form and wait to be summoned from the lobby. A pink card left in the chair next to me suggests “next time you have low back pain or spasms, please call.” They’re also interested in testing those who are “constantly running to the bathroom,” have decreased sexual desire and abdominal bloating. But I have to complete this study first before I can aspire to those conditions and another $40.

When Jennifer calls me back, she reviews my paperwork and asks basically the same questions over again. I guess they’re trying to trip up anybody who claimed to have jaundice in the waiting room but has suddenly pinked-up when personally confronted. She takes my temperature, then explains how I need to keep track of any side effects I might encounter. For the first five days, I’ll need to watch the site of the vaccine and measure the size of any swelling. “If it’s over three inches, just check the box that says ‘3+’”, she says. I’m starting to worry a little. “The swelling might be over three inches high?” I ask. Fortunately, that’s a stupid question. The swollen area, if there is one, would be measured in width, not height.

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One Response to “Looking back on a career of labored days”

  1. LetUsAllUsPlayDominoes Says:

    Following up on the brilliance of outside consultants: A few years back, I was employed as a cathedral musician (that’s a big deal in my line of work…). To bolster attendance, the church decided to bring in a couple of very highly paid consultants from Canada to do a top to bottom assessment of the situation.

    Their critical analysis boiled down to: Palestrina bad, Shania Twain good.

    In the barrel that was provided as a kind of suggestion box, my question to the consultants was, “How soon can you take the next plane out of town?”

    At least they had the courage to read the question aloud. The answer turned out to be, “Not soon enough’.

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