Now FLY! An Adventure in Leadership

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I can’t sleep.  My mind is racing and it generates a continuous slideshow loop of what can go horribly wrong for me tonight.  It’s Sunday, New Years Day, I’m home trying to get some extra rest as tonight I fly solo and will be responsible for several million dollars worth of equipment and inventory not to mention the 100 lives that go along to operate it all after only a whole two weeks of whirlwind training, I’m managing the first production startup of the new year.

It turned out the rumors were true about a buyer for the company.  A much larger corporation that produces the same product under a well-known brand name and actually understands the manufacturing process has become our new benevolent masters. Right after the sale, they were all over our plant watching, writing, asking, observing, tallying, poking, prodding, and judging.  After a few weeks of intense scrutiny, the changes came down from the mountain top (corporate) and it began with the immediate disbanding of the three gangs that previously operated the territories. (For more info and history on the gangs read The Company Civil War).

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What was the Creatives gang had now become the Production Department and their management team was beefed up with the hiring of new superintendents.  Along with that word also came that the long-feuding DC and Wrappers gangs were to be combined into ONE department that controlled everything from the packaging of the product to palletizing, storage, and shipping so we all had to find a way to get along let alone learn to trust each other.  Our former leader, Raoul was quickly pushed into retirement and shoved out the door, along with one other longtime DC superintendents.  Pete the sweet was demoted from leader of the now-defunct Wrappers to a Packaging Superintendant and soon after that our new head of the new packaging department arrived. 

Back after the sale when they were reviewing us all it was decided that the other DC superintendent, Brad, and I were worth retaining for entertainment and torture purposes as we were now going to be trained and transformed into packaging superintendents.  Brad and I had an awful lot to learn especially since before this merger of the gangs we were always discouraged from entering or nosing around in Wrappers territory. 

I walked into the kitchen, “What are you doing up?”, my wife asked.  I can’t sleep and all I’m doing is just laying there and torturing myself.  “Do you want something to eat?”  Sure, I answered and while you do that I’ll put up some coffee.  I’m going to need a full thermos tonight.  As the coffee brewed I pulled out the drawings and notes that I quickly jotted during my so-called training.  My training consisted of me just barely keeping up with my trainer as I followed him around, up ladders and down man lifts, under moving conveyors and behind spinning dryers.  For a man 20 years my senior he moved with ninja like quality at an incredible speed but spoke even faster while giving me a running dialogue of the sights we were seeing just like a tour guide.  He had a heavy accent and I was behind him as he spoke 90 percent of the time while wearing earplugs and surrounded by loud machinery so I wasn’t really sure what he had pointed out or what he was telling me and before I could get my bearings as to exactly where I was in the plant he was off again.

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The most unfortunate aspect of our training was that good old Pete the Sweet was put in charge of it and he still carried a grudge against us so it wasn’t going to be easy.   He’d call Brad and I into his office and would roll out maps and diagrams of the areas we were supposedly in earlier but they never quite look the same on paper as in real life.  At the end of each day, he’d ask with a silly smirk on his face, so you got it now?  Every day I’d look at him straight in the eye and say, no.  He’d chuckle and say, well you don’t have much more time.  Whatever the hell that meant.  What helped me the most to learn and figure it all out was to wander around on my own usually during my lunch break and I’d come in a half-hour before and stay half-hour after my shift, making notes and asking the operators questions.  It’s amazing how much employees love showing off their knowledge of the operation to someone who shows a genuine interest.

Well, ready or not it all culminates tonight.  In my head I hear, “Now FLY!” and laugh at myself as the thought of a Monty Python cartoon where a giant foot kicks people off the top of a mountain as it yells, FLY!  Of course, all of them just drop straight down the side of the mountain and land with the loud sound of a splat!  Could be me tonight.  “Aren’t you going to eat that?”  My wife’s voice brought me back to reality.  Oh, yea, sorry.  I ate, packed my lunch, filled my thermos, grabbed my notes, kissed the family goodnight and drove to work for my solo flight.

As I drove down the road towards the plant it appeared to look larger than usual and could have been a distortion due to all the plant lights against the darkness of the night or just an overflow of adrenalin.  I parked and got out of the car.  Stood there for a moment, closed my eyes deeply inhaled the cool night air, and walked up to the guard post and checked in.  Since this was startup there was no previous shift to take a handoff from so after checking and finding no call-ins on the sick line, a positive, I walked packaging to check in and introduce myself to all the stations and make sure everyone was getting ready for the fun ahead.

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The first thing I realized during my rounds was that not only did Pete see to it that our training was less than stellar but the team he had assembled for my shift was scattered with a few experienced people but mostly those with the least amount of seniority as well as the least trained and then for good measure, threw in every misfit and malcontent from the other shifts.  Pete had stacked the deck against me and I would soon learn one of them was planted there so Pete could track my activities.

Back at the office and was worried about my green staff who were being led by a green superintendent and that my first day was going to be my last.  I sat in my chair, looked at the packaging schedule, actually just looking through it as my mind floated when I was Jared by the phone ringing.  Production was sending over the finished product to the bins and we could begin to pack.  I regrouped and remembered what had gotten me this far but also had something going for me that Pete or myself never imagined.  

We were scheduled to run seven packaging lines and now that the bins were full of product we were ready to go.  Most of the crew knew that I was brought over from the distribution/warehouse and had gained respect there for championing safety, in fact, shutting down a palletizer because it was missing a chain guard exposing employees to leg amputations and also generating work orders to be expedited for safety reasons then posting the work orders progress so all the employees could see it.  It was a great morale booster as most of the w/o were generated by issues employees pointed out.   

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It took a year there to get to that point of trust and it didn’t help that people like Pete the Sweet and most of the previous old management treated employees like crap.  They yelled, threatened, harassed, and discriminated against them, and if one of Pete’s spies could find something juicy they would blackmail on top of everything else.  That wasn’t my approach and it had worked very well for me.  As I touched base at each station I didn’t tell them what to do, I asked if they were aware of the schedule, did they have all the raw materials they needed or anything they needed.  Some of the operators were so welcoming, demonstrating how their machine worked and how it could work more efficiently.  It was the best education I could get and I was getting paid on top of it all. I took notes on issues brought to my attention so I could look into them.   

Even those that were deemed as trouble makers or non-redeemable approached me and only wanted to be heard and not told it’s none of their business or promise to get back to them and then didn’t.  It turned out they were capable and job knowledgable employees just no one gave them the opportunity to care before.   The one thing that Pete never counted on is that his dislike by all would help us bond together and as much as I empowered them they taught me manufacturing, maintenance and patients.  During the next six months, we became an amazing team out producing the other two shifts on a regular basis but this would spur jealously in Pete as he could never motivate a team to achieve what we were doing.  Luckily it was soon after he began cooking the production numbers before sending them to corporate to make us look bad that he would be caught.  In addition the team knew who his spy was and several of my staff quietly pointed him out to me from day one and sometimes for pure entertainment we would feed him all kinds of stuff which we knew would drive Pete crazy.  Soon Pete’s rhein would end as the company terminated his employment for several issues and the general culture generally improved to a more positive and productive one.  This was an exceptional team of people, from every spectrum of the human race and I was truly proud of them all.  We got through some tough spots but got it done through strong communication, training, trust, and respect.  

You don’t have to know everything to get the job done as long as you can motivate a team to navigate, you can learn to fly.

 

Learning to Fly
Well, I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up and the world got still
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Now the good ol’ days may not return
And the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
(Learning to fly)
And coming down is the hardest thing
(Learning to fly)
Yes, it is
Now some say life will beat you down
Yeah, it will break your heart, steal your crown
So I started out for God knows where
But I guess I’ll know when I get there
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
(Learning to fly)
And coming down is the hardest thing
(Learning to fly)
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
But coming down is the hardest thing
Yeah, that’s
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
(I’ll tell you one thing, baby, I’m gonna learn to fly)
Coming down is the hardest thing
(Yeah, and fly over my troubles, fly over my worries)
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
(Fly up high in the blue sky, lookin’ down on the world below)
Coming down is the hardest thing
(Yeah, above all my worries, and over my troubles)
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
(Yes, it is, yes it will, gonna work, fly)
Coming down
Baby, that’s the hardest thing
 
 
 

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