It was the summer of 1973, having recently turned 23 and shortly after graduating from college, when I first made the observation: If you want to know what’s up, pay attention to the people who do the work.
I was working again on the production line in the GE Direct Current Motor and Generator Department in Erie, Pennsylvania, listening to Jim Croce sing Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and the Watergate hearings on the radio, and trying to make sense of a standoff going on between the line workers in my coil-winding unit and the General Foreman. Like virtually everything else on the production line, winding coils was piece-work. Above a contractually agreed upon base rate per hour, you got paid on the basis of how many pieces – coils wound in this case – you turned out per hour on the clock. Pieces were rated by Engineering in terms of how long they normally should take to produce. That allotted time counted as 100%. If you produced the piece in that amount of time, you made 100% – your base pay. You made rate. If you could do them faster, the surplus would earn you extra pay. There was a generally shared tacit understanding that 125% was the real number both labor and management were interested in. If you did your job diligently, you could make 125%. 100% was for slackers. Over-performers who took advantage of the system and applied themselves to making 140 or 150%, say, were well advised to watch their backs and where they parked. Planners tracking the movement of orders down the line took the 125% number into account, because throughout the plant that was the unspoken agreed upon norm.
I was a smart guy, reasonably diligent, wanting to make what I could; but respectful of the fact while this was a temporary gig for me, for my co-workers this was their livelihood. They were planning to spend their lives there. They expected the union to negotiate fair rates for them and they expected the company to survive and prosper. I had no desire to outshine them. Previous summers, I had been employed doing piecework elsewhere on the floor. Lead workers would show me how it was done. They’d demonstrate the equipment and the processes required to get those pieces turned from raw material into finished parts. I’d fumble around for a week and by the third week for sure I’d be making 125% if I applied myself. Workers on the shop floor always knew I was “Dr. Cole’s boy,” and they knew I was only passing through. Dr. Cole belonged to Management, but he was on the Engineering side and was more interested in how to deliver well-engineered, high quality products to customers, using state of the art, high quality manufacturing processes. The first in his family to go to college, he knew what it meant to work for a living. He liked and respected the people who did the work and they liked him. He didn’t care so much about the business concerns and corporate advancement that preoccupied many of his peers in Management. Like the General Foreman.
I was hired in on second shift, working from 3 – 11 PM. The lead worker promptly told me there was a showdown going on between the workers in the unit and the General Foreman. The matter was simple. In his mid- to late- 30’s, the General Foreman was climbing the corporate ladder. He was convinced that the pieces could be produced more quickly and that therefore the rates should be cut to reduce cost. To prove his point, he was time-studying the operation. It was the first time I ever saw a portable video camera, cutting edge technology at the time, as he tried to record what the workers were doing and to prove that they could produce more efficiently with a little more hustle. The workers were not playing along. They responded by working by the book, doing the jobs exactly and in every respect as the Engineering manuals for the unit prescribed. Production was down to around 100%, no surprise, and the Planners were getting edgy because assembly further down the line was being held up. I was hired in just to get another body on the line producing pieces, while the showdown between the workers the General Foreman went on. The union was quietly supportive of the workers and plant management for the time being was giving the General Foreman a green light to pursue his initiative, understanding that his main objective was to earn his stripes and get himself promoted up to the executive level of the company.
As a good card-carrying New Left radical who believed Karl Marx was onto something with his critique of capitalism, I was predisposed to want to see the workers succeed. However, as a demonstrably smart guy with an Ivy League education and as the son of Dr. Cole, who had imprinted me with his passion for all things having to do with science, engineering, and fabricating everything from crystal radio sets and model airplanes to sailboats and electric go-carts; I was curious about the point of contention – whether the pieces could be produced more efficiently and if so how. The lead worker and others in the unit showed me sure enough how to produce the pieces – by the book. I got to work and found it was a real effort to get past 80%, much less reach the customary 125%. On a good night I hit 100%, maybe. The co-workers were cordial. I kept a low profile, meanwhile wondering how in heck these things could be produced more quickly because I sure wasn’t seeing it. I was no threat to the workers’ game plan, even if I’d wanted to be. This went on for maybe three weeks.
Finally, one Monday I showed up for work and the lead worker said very simply, “they backed off.” That night I was introduced to tools and production techniques and procedures I’d never seen and I made rate. Few life lessons have made such an impression. Never, ever underestimate the people who get the work done. These blue-collar line workers had invented those tools and procedures, not the engineers with degrees from RPI, MIT and Yale, who made at least twice what they did. Those tools and procedures were of real value to the company, but within the existing labor-management culture the company had no way or desire to recognize them or compensate them.
Years later I learned about Edwards Deming and Total Quality Management (TQM). I learned about inverted triangle models of management: Each level supports the next one above. The CEO’s job is to make sure the senior personnel have the resources and support needed to do their jobs successfully. Senior personnel’s job is to see to it that line supervisors have what they need to do their own jobs. Line supervisors’ job is to give front line workers what they need to succeed. Line workers are the enterprise’s interface with the world outside, the world where customers live and work and have their being. Customer satisfaction is the ultimate measure of line workers’ success. Theoretically, the CEO, furthest removed from the customer, is the least important person in the company.
The hitch is, who exactly is the customer? The party who is prepared to exchange something of value – usually hard-earned cash – for what you are selling. If there is not a culture in place that puts high value on the quality of what the enterprise is selling, people up and down the line view the people at the next tier as their customers. Had the quality of the products delivered been the General Foreman’s primary concern, he would have viewed the workers as allies in the effort. His customers though were not the end-users of the motors and generators the plant manufactured. The people paying for his services were managers up the line from him. The people paying for their services were in corporate headquarters, in orbit around the CEO, who was paying for their services. And who does the CEO answer to? Investors. Shareholders. Wall Street.
Sadly, GE went on to corner the market in promoting TQM, creating the glamorous Six-Sigma corporate training brand, all the while looking away from the end-users of their products and from the people who knew what customers wanted and needed. Just as sadly, the same bug went on to infect other sectors. Take an experienced university administrator or non-profit leader aside and ask them who they really answer to. For sure not the students or faculty members or the community collaborators and beneficiaries of their services. They answer to the people – the foundations, Governors and government agencies, alumni and donors – who pay their bills. The 4000 jobs at DCM&G in Erie are gone and the markets love the company that Jack Welch built. The workers may have won the battle, but they lost the war. The General Foreman, it turns out, had his eye on the right customer. He knew who he needed to please, in order to make rate.