The Perils of Busy Work. Part One

This is the third installment of a 4 part series that I originally titled The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly. It is a walk with me through different segments of my life that have been effected by prostate cancer and the treatments I have endured. Over the last six years, my life has changed dramatically since becoming a living, breathing cancer survivor. Some of these changes are bad. Some are good. And some are downright ugly.

If you missed part 1, go here.

If you missed part 2, go here.

I realize that the last two blogs that I posted, A Day Without A Dutch Immigrant and A Few Disclaimers were totally off this series and didn’t really fit in the order I was doing things, but hey, it’s my blog, I can do what I want. Wow, that sounds a little selfish. Let’s just say I like to write about stuff that I am interested in at the time, so I will veer off from time to time to other subjects. Even in the middle of a blog about my occupation I might start riffing about how high school basketball coaches should be more about adapting their system to their players as opposed to adapting their players to their system. I think I just proved my point on how this thing can veer off. So let’s get this things started. I’ll try to stay on course as much as possible.

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly.  Part 3. 


The Bad

First off, if you think this is going to be a bash session on the place I have worked for the last 30 years, that is not my intention. This is going to be about my work there and how things have changed for me since my cancer diagnosis. I have changed the name of the company to Big Blue because, well, I don’t want to get fired or sued. I have sat in a couple of meetings with some of Big Blue’s lawyers, and they are quite an impressive bunch. (The meetings were not about me) If you google Big Blue, there are two organizations that have this nickname, the computer company IBM and the New York Giants. I can assure you I do not work for either of these organizations, although I find the thought of working for the New York Football Giants kind of intriguing.

Busy work

My junior year in high school was a complete train wreck. I dislocated my knee playing in a pick up football game and had to wear a cast from my hip to my ankle for a month. Dragging that cast around caused me to develop a hernia, so I had to have surgery to repair that.  I quit the swim team that year, so the combined factors of recovering from the knee and the hernia and not swimming caused me to gain 30 pounds. My acne flared up to record levels. I was fired from not one, but two jobs. Academically, I was a very disinterested student, just getting by. I actually dropped algebra that year. If you are thinking, you can’t drop a class in high school like its college, you’re right, in most cases you can’t. But I did. I don’t get algebra, and my teacher was totally sympathetic to my predicament. On my last test, I completed about half of it, and then wrote her an impassioned note about how things just weren’t working out between me and algebra and I needed to move on with my life. She agreed and worked with school administrators to move me out of her class. Of course, she may have been sympathetic, but that didn’t prevent her from reading my note to the rest of my fellow algebra classmates. I have always had a way with words.

(Before you start thinking, boy, this guy is a total loser, I recovered quite nicely in my senior year. I rejoined the swim team, dropped the 30 pounds, had my best year in swimming, took classes in writing and literature that were more my speed, my acne cleared up, and I actually convinced a girl to go out with me on a regular basis.)

The one thing that I was actually looking forward to in my junior year was a government class. Now, I know most people hate this class and only take it because it is required to graduate, but if you remember from previous blogs, I am a total government nerd. I had followed politics since I was little. In 5th grade, I had a teacher who spent a month teaching us about the Constitution. I ate that up. I could sing the preamble of the Constitution. (Thanks, Schoolhouse Rock!). I knew how the Electoral College worked. (An under appreciated skill these days). I figured this was going to be the easiest A in my somewhat checkered high school career. But I was very wrong. And that is when I discovered that I had absolutely no tolerance for busy work.

My high school government teacher was a very good teacher, and I learned a lot in his class, even though most of the class was about stuff I already knew about. I think I aced every test. But, overall, I received a straight B in the class. And the reason for that grade was because my teacher had this thing about the notes we took in class. He wanted us to rewrite our notes and hand them in as assignments. And not just rewrite. He wanted the notes to look like works of art, with headings in one color and the other parts in other colors, and all very neatly printed and organized. Not only was this something I wasn’t very good at, I saw absolutely zero value in it. Well, not zero value. I do recognize the value of redoing notes so you remember the facts when you are eventually tested on them. But not in four color harmony.

I’m left handed and I have a unique way of writing. I kind of grab the pen in an upside down way and drag it across the page. It’s not pretty. It sort of looks like my hand is having its own mini seizure. And the only way I can write anything that is remotely legible is the pen needs to be pretty thin. If it is a thick pen, my writing looks like the scribblings of a mad man. Or a doctor. Well, the one way to write notes in four color harmony is to have a pen that you can click to four different colors. Four different pens takes forever. So I bought one of those wonderful four color pens. They are thick. Really thick. My scrawled out notes looked like Charles Manson wrote them while he was on an LSD bender. After getting consistent D’s on my notes I quit trying. I knew the material, so basically I said screw it, I’ll just go ahead and get a B in the class. The busy work in that class was just stupid, and I had no tolerance for it. And it was a glimpse into the way I treated busy work for the rest of my life.

The dreaded 4 color pen, next to one of its thinner colleagues. 

Being a zone leader

At Big Blue, they have this position that they call a “zone leader”.  Basically, think supervisor on a smaller scale. You are a team leader for about 7 to 12 people. You lead these people to run the products, get the schedule done, and work with them on such stuff as scheduling vacations, running to a tact, which is basically how many parts per hour they should run, and taking care of any issues that may come up during the day. If there are equipment issues, you call maintenance and try to get them fixed. That’s pretty much your day. Oh, yeah, and try to lead people that have all kinds of personalities and their own specific stuff going on in their own lives.

Back in 2007, I had an opportunity to become a zone leader on third shift. Up until this time, I had never even considered being any kind of boss. I liked running a machine, or a welder, or loading trucks, or hanging the paint line. I have had many different jobs, and I always liked the physical nature of the jobs. I loved working hard. And, when we had piece work, I was rewarded for working hard by earning extra money. But, by 2007, piece work was long gone. So was the money. Overtime was less plentiful. So was the money. So, after watching my yearly income fall every year, I decided to go on third shift and become a zone leader. It paid a little more money per hour, I got a little more overtime, and I also received a shift premium. For these reasons and the challenge of trying something new, I took the job of being a brand new zone leader.

The first problem I encountered was the realization that I had no training at all in leading people. I had always been a worker bee. The people that were working for me stared at me waiting for me to lead my first start up meeting. I was terrified. I was lucky because I had worked in the area for a number of years, so I knew the jobs. I croaked out something about being in this all together or some kind of faintly inspirational crap. And then I moved people where they had to go. I have no idea how I got through that first night.

(A quick veer off here. Getting good temporary help on 3rd shift is a bit of a challenge. The people that would show up could sometimes be a bit sketchy. Some were good workers, some were bad workers, and some were possible serial killers. I had one guy who had the total serial killer, meth head look going. But the dude could spot weld like a frickin pro. He eventually left for another job, but I always wondered if the guy went nuts and grabbed a welding rod and tried to stab another worker in the face, would I have tackled him and called security, or would I have just grabbed him gently by the shoulders, talked him down, and then urged him to run the last 20 parts to complete the schedule. I guess we’ll never know. Back to the blog.)

I was gonna put a picture of Charles Manson here, but thought, no, that will just creep everybody out. So here’s a close up of Zoey!

But eventually I got used to the issues that came up, and I was able to get better at leading people through trial and error. The one thing that got me through those first few weeks and months of my zone leading career was that I knew what I wanted from a zone leader when I was working on the floor. I just needed my boss to give me whatever I needed to be a success at my job, and then get out of the way. As long as he supported me, that’s all that mattered. I would work hard, just leave me alone and let me work.

So that was my approach. I did whatever it took to keep my people working and feel supported. I learned more stuff along the way, like how to do deal with personalities, and how to feel a little empathy for people in tough situations, but mostly I was just there for support. They knew the jobs and I trusted them. And to my surprise, this worked really well. My people were very loyal to me. I was moved a couple of times, and each time I was moved, there would always be a couple of guys that would go in the office and demand a reason why they were moving me. It made me feel good that people wanted me to be their boss. The problem was, this approach didn’t always sit too well with my bosses.

Well, that’s enough for now. I am way over The One Poop Rule so I am ending this here for now. The sun is out and I need to get on my bike. Stay tuned for part two of part 3 of this blog. That’s kind of confusing. Just stay tuned for more crap I am writing tomorrow.

By the way, I am starting tomorrow’s blog  with this heading,

Busy work…part 2

If you were crazily entertained by the busy work section of this blog, stand by for more hilarity. If you were bored by my wildly entertaining story about my high school government class and thought, gee I wish I was doing something else right now besides reading this stupid blog, maybe you should just skip reading part two and go for a bike ride. I hear it’s good for you.

Thanks for reading.



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