“I hope you don’t mind me droppin’ by unannounced.”
Ed was standing in the doorway, leaning forward in a way that if I didn’t invite him in quickly he might just fall into my office.
“No problem, Ed. Come on in and have a seat. Do we need to close the door?”
I don’t always ask that question, but with Ed, I needed to. He’s got what I call a ‘bold voice’, and if he wanted to talk about anything sensitive, just about everyone down the hall is going to hear him with the door open.
“Maybe you better close it,” Ed confirmed. “I got a problem with this whole ‘team’ thing, and I need to get something off my chest about it.”
Ed was a 25 year employee, came in right out of high school and, from what I had been told, worked his way into a supervisory role under a strict line-of-command type leadership team. The way they talk about those days, when the plant manager said “Jump!”, you asked “how high?” That was Ed’s style too, but he had done an amazing job adapting to a much more open environment.
“The last time we talked,” I recounted, “you seemed to be feeling pretty good about your crew. They were taking in all the training and progressing through all the modules, right? And if I’m not mistaken, you still have the best safety record and always first or second in monthly productivity.”
“We were second last month only because Charlie was out on sick leave.” Ed was quick to defend his team’s performance.
“So why are you here, Ed?” We were sitting at the small round table I have in my office that works well for 2 or 3 people. But he was looking down at the floor and his knee was bouncing up and down. The ball of his foot was on the ground, but that leg was bouncing like something awful was about to be explained.
“Well, sir”, his leg stopped bouncing and he looked up at me. “Is my team doing too good? I’m beginning to think that the next cost cutting move here is to get rid of the supervisors, because the people are doing pretty well at this self-directed stuff. I heard a couple of the engineers talking about some sort of re-organization, and I want to know where I stand.” He looked relieved that he had put his cards on the table.
I was a little surprised that the word about the re-org had somehow started to get out. We had gone to great lengths to keep it quiet, because there were still a few details to work out, including a plan to eliminate the on-shift supervisor role. I had no answer for Ed, because we hadn’t fully decided on the plan of action, or if we would put it off until the next round of negotiations with the union. But I did know one thing – Ed’s team leader was going to have work for Ed to do for some time. No one could train employees in the technical aspects of the process as thoroughly as Ed could.
“Well Ed, the engineers are speculating, I think. We are always looking at how to make the plant more competitive, but there is nothing going on right now that will be pushing you out the door. Who knows the operating process better, you or those engineers? Who do they call when they get stuck on a process problem?”
“You know it’s me,” he said as he sat up straight and smiled. He was pretty proud of the fact that he was the primary subject matter expert. He had recently been invited to spend a week at one of the sister plants to share some of the practices he and his team had developed to reduce downtime.
“Right, it’s you. And when we had the recognition lunch last month when the regional president was here, who did we put right next to her? You. Ed, I can’t make any promises to anyone. I can’t even be sure I’ll be here to keep those promises. But you just keep doing what you are doing, and the next time you hear those engineers talking about the organization, ask them if they’ve solved that adhesive problem you’ve been asking them about.”
Ed nodded his head and stood up. “You know somethin’, they have been taking their sweet time with that problem. I gotta go get them back on that.”
“Before you go, Ed, there is something I have been meaning to tell you. You’re right, your team is getting better all the time. All the teams are. But I can tell you the other supervisors, for the most part, seem to be considering that improved team performance is giving them more time to take it easy. But you have been using the time to learn more about the thing you are already considered expert in. And even if you ever leave here, that is something that almost every employer wants more of. My recommendation is that you just keep doing what you know, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Ed opened the door and did a sort of salute/wave before he turned and left. Then I wondered if I was doing my job as well as he was doing his.
Sometimes our role models, the people we would do best to emulate, are not the ones we are chasing up the ladder.