In Search of the Operarius nidum – Adventure in Leadership

As your career unfolds and you gain increased responsibilities such as supervisor, manager, and plant manager, each new facility will benefit from your skills and abilities as you put them into practice but you will also grow as a leader as you learn from the staff and challenges of your newly assigned facility. I can guarantee this since during my entire career in warehousing and manufacturing it has been a two-way street, but each time I thought I had seen it all…

With each new position, I would spend as much time as possible on the production floor to be available to listen to employees, learn their names, their jobs, their experience, their wish list, and if they were willing to share what they liked or disliked most about working here. When you are on the floor you get a general feel of the ebb and flow of the facility that you can’t get from a computer screen in an office. You can also keep an eye out for good safety practices or lack thereof while on the production floor as well as anything unusual or out of place.

At one company I had been promoted to district manager and oversaw several warehouses within a 25-mile area, each received and stored products, picked orders, and shipped via LTL or company truck. We didn’t use wooden or plastic pallets to store products at any of the warehouses and we didn’t store them on racks or shelving, but stacked cases on slip sheets in a prescribed pattern at a prescribed height and then stacked them three or four stacks high. The warehouses had aisles and lanes full of stacked products, and each aisle had a name and cross street. When picking orders, by the pallet, you were given a location, Yankees and Tigers or Broncos and Seahawks. The tall stacks of pallets of products were just over 20 feet tall so tall enough to be used as camouflage for a very creative employee.

When a facility is poorly managed, there are employees who know how to take advantage since they know chances are slim they will be caught or suffer little consequence if any at all if they are. Turns out that’s how it was here until I came along. I didn’t have a set routine and schedule to visit the warehouses, only my assistant knew so I’d pop in where ever, whenever which it turns out created issues for some employees. One very early morning walking down an aisle in our main warehouse I got the distinct smell of skunk? Or was it pot? I didn’t see smoke but I could sure smell it. I walked around the stacked aisles but could find nothing, and no way to penetrate the stacks without moving all the pallets to get deep inside so I made a mental note and moved on. It happened again a week later so now I was determined to solve this mystery.

First I began stopping by at least once a day, at various times usually under the guise of solving inventory discrepancies, to see if I could narrow things down. I didn’t smell pot one time but swear I could hear music playing low. When I looked at the inventory map in the area I had zeroed in on, it didn’t indicate any product listed for the inner center of the area yet there were pallets. Hmmm.

Days later when I stopped in at the warehouse a crew was replacing lightbulbs in the overhead lighting and as luck would have it they were using a scissor lift! After a latte and Danish were used to bribe the scissor lift driver he took me up over to my suspect area of stacks and there it was…Shangrala! An open area right smack in the middle of the other stacks. A hidden room so to speak. I grabbed the shift supervisor and had him move the first two stacks of pallets and like an archeologist discovering a new pyramid chamber we entered the secret room.

It wasn’t a very elaborate setup but there was a very old ratty sofa chair, a folding chair, a small folding table that had an ashtray with a few joint roaches sitting in it, and a boom box along with scattered newspapers on the floor and candy wrappers. We took pictures of it all as requested by H.R. and then I had it all tossed into the dumpster and filled in the vacant area with real inventory. I have to admit it was ingenious but it would also be nice if that creativity was used for making the job easier for all. I also ordered a lift cage for this location so we could occasionally check for any new comfort stations and with this being the only three-shift warehouse it was a great investment for the future.

H.R. did their investigation but I didn’t care at this point. I was hoping that the fact it was discovered, dismantled, and tossed sent a strong enough message to deter any future new rooms. After all whoever did this displayed creativity, ingenuity, and courage. I didn’t agree with it but I did admire it.

Ten years later I was a packaging superintendent at a food manufacturing plant. We could have as many as ten packaging lines going at the same time on any given day from 1lb boxes to 10 lb bags to 100 lb sacks. It was a very busy and very large facility. High above the production floor was the network of conveyors, moving product along as fast as possible, and at the heart of it all, where all the lines met, was the transfer station. I first spent time up there to learn the system, and how it is all interconnected in hopes this would come in handy when we had to troubleshoot the system or how to change lines if a particular one went down. I have to admit I did enjoy spending time up here, the solitude was nice and I could think a problem out even with the loud background noise of all the machinery. It had its own rhythmic beat when it was flowing perfectly and when I closed my eyes I could hear the music. An item would come up to the transfer point, stop, get scanned, counted, assigned a line, transferred to the proper belt, and then be sent downhill to the palletizers. A symphony.

One night the engineers were replacing a motor on one of the lines. They needed the extra light from flashlights to see what they were doing which at first didn’t register in my head but then I thought, do we need to replace light bulbs? When I looked up I could tell the light was blocked by cardboard that was spread out on the perforated metal walkway above. Before I could check it out I was called to the storeroom to issue a part for production. During the graveyard shift, a superintendent wore many hats but I kept a 3×5 notepad in my back pocket, and along with other issues encountered during a shift, the cardboard was noted.

I was in my second favorite place, (the transfer point described above, my first was on the very top of the storage silo, always quiet and alone with the greatest view of the bridge and strait) in the plant when I remembered the cardboard-covered walkway so of course away I went. It was another human nest. Turns out it really wasn’t a walkway but a square area that dropped below the walkway that appeared to have no use at all now but maybe did at another time. The perforated metal had a layer of cardboard covering the entire floor and sides making it totally concealed. There was only a metal folding chair under the light that was now obstructed below.

After I had requested the area be cleaned up, two of the engineers’ approached me and came clean about the little nest. They explained that on those days when it was crazy on the lines it was easier to stop and take their breaks there and get issues fixed than wasting time coming all the way down for break only to have to go back up again. They never left a mess and were honestly trying to do the smart thing and not trying to hide or cause problems. It all made sense and I can attest all too well to those days when a motor or two would burn out while a roller or two would freeze up at the same time while production is breathing down your back to get it fixed!

I let it slide, after a few modifications to the cardboard to allow ample light to the area below and a promise they’d keep the area free and clear of trash. How could I not reward them for being creative to keep the packaging team going thanks to their efforts, we always did met or exceeded our goals and this also generated some goodwill, which as things went here, having any kind of edge on your shift was a major plus.

What about you? Have you ever found a human nest in your facility? Don’t be shy to share your stories.


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