The Perils of Busy Work.  Part 2

Before I start today’s blog, I should quickly explain something about this week. This week is Appointment Week. I capitalized it to make it seem cooler than it really is, like if it were Bike Week in Sturgis, or Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. It’s not really cool at all, but if I don’t recognize it right now you might think I am a little more depressed or sarcastic or cynical than I usually am in this wonderful piece of quasi art I call Fishrocks. On Friday, I have an appointment to see my urologist to get my latest numbers. This always makes this week a bit challenging, with lots of angst, crying, feeling sorry for my self, along with an unhealthy amount of drinking. But, striving on, I am going to try to write this thing anyway.  If things get a little bumpy along the way, you know why. Once again, I will try to keep this thing on track, but, again, beware of veers. Consider yourself warned.

If you missed part one, go here.

With that said, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Right now you are probably saying to yourself, oh, sure Dan, go on a 500 word rant a few blogs ago about how bad classic rock is and then lead off a blog with a piece of music that was written 30 years ago and is generally considered to be serious classic rock. And if you just got done saying that to yourself, or possibly your cat, congratulations, you are absolutely right. But I have an explanation. First off, Stevie Ray Vaughan is a guitar god. Anyone that can play a guitar like that is exempt from any music genre rules. And, in this particular clip from Austin City Limits, his guitar looks like he just got it out of the nearest dumpster. The thing is seriously beat up, with his glittery initials on it, and just when you wonder how in the hell is he going to play that piece of trash, he makes it crank up some amazingly slamming riffs that are completely unique to him. I think that is the mark of a great guitarist. You hear the first few chords, and you immediately know who’s playing. Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of those guitarists.

The reason I picked the song “Walking the Tightrope” is because when you write a blog that involves your current place of employment, you kind of have to walk a fine line between telling too much or telling too little. I will be attempting to tell you about my experience of being a zone leader before and after my cancer diagnosis, and that will involve telling you about a few incidents that have shaped me into who I am today. I could throw a few disclaimers in like Hollywood does to cover my butt, like the one that says anyone living or dead that resembles anyone in this story is purely a coincidence, but that would be a total lie. I can say that no animals were harmed in the writing of this blog, and that is very true since Zoey and I went for a walk while I was brainstorming for ideas on this topic and I can say she came through that walk perfectly fine. She is napping contentedly as I write this. So we’re cool with the animal part of the disclaimer.

The obligatory Zoey picture. C’mon, like you didn’t know it was coming. 

Busy Work. Part 2

Picking up where I left the last blog, I told you that I wasn’t necessarily my bosses favorite zone leader. And the reason for that goes back once again to my dislike of busy work. You see, as time moved on, someone in higher management decided that zone leaders needed to do something besides, well, leading their zone. Instead of just making sure my people had what they needed to be successful, I had to start filling out and making forms that had to go on a thing called a “zone leader board,” which, in my opinion was a colossal waste of time. This board had to show things like how we were running the area as far as the latest matrices were concerned. Safety, employee involvement, running the business was all measured. It involved lots and lots of graphs and paper and four color harmony. And a lot of a Excel spread sheets. And I pretty much refused to do any of it. I was responsible for 4 different areas on 3rd shift, and I had to keep people moving to make sure the things that had to be done were getting done. I didn’t have time for busy work. I was too busy doing real work.

These spread sheets were also the featured performers in a thing called a bankers meeting. They took the spread sheets, all the graphs and pie charts and eight step problem solving matrices, all in glorious 4 color harmony, fed the info into a computer, and then threw it up on a screen to be critiqued by your plant manager. Big fun!  And a total waste of time.

(I have a theory about how Excel spread sheets came to be. I think it was a collaboration between Bill Gates and the devil. I suspect the conversation went something  like this.

Bill Gates:  I want to be the richest person in the world.

The devil:  Well, that’s fine, but you are going to have to come up with something truly evil to impress me enough to make you the richest person in the world.

Bill Gates:  I’ll work on that.


Bill Gates:  I think I’ve got something you’ll like. I’ve made a spread sheet so amazing that it does almost everything you would ever want to do with a spread sheet.

The devil:  What is so evil about that?

Bill Gates:  Only a few select few people will truly understand how to use it. And the ones that do understand will make the ones who don’t understand feel really inferior and stupid. It’s full of things like cells and colors and in order to figure out how to be effective with it, you have to take a class that is so mind crushingly boring it will make you attempt suicide by stabbing yourself in the face with your pencil.

The devil:  You have my attention. What else?

Bill Gates:  I’ll call it Excel, so people who don’t know how to use it feel even more like they don’t belong. And when they go to close the spread sheets down, they will be asked if they want to save the changes they just made, even though they didn’t make any changes. Which will make them totally panic.

The devil, his eyes wide, drops his pitchfork, and gives Bill Gates a high five.

The devil:  Dude, I am so dropping $35 billion into your checking account!

I realize I may be the only person in the world that doesn’t understand how Excel spreadsheets work and I’m just lashing out, but wow, how’s that for veering off?)

My point about this whole story?  I didn’t care about what other people thought, I just cared about getting the job done and making sure my people were taken care of. The rest of it was just busy work. And that worked for me. And even though my bosses didn’t like it all the time, they ultimately knew that I was getting the job done. 

Fast forward to 2013. I am now working in a different plant, on 1st shift, and running a machine again. I decide after a couple of years in the plant, I feel comfortable enough with the way things work to become a zone leader again. So I apply, get the job, and start training. The first thing they do is send me to a zone leader training class, so I am up on all the latest techniques on leadership and all the latest forms and spreadsheets to fill out for my board. Uh-oh. That should have been a huge red flag for me. Here I was, a zone leader for 5 years with the company, and they were sending me to class to be a zone leader. I felt like I was being sent to a re-education camp, like I was being indoctrinated and if I didn’t comply I would surely fail. So I complied. And then I completely and utterly and surely, failed.

You see, after my cancer diagnosis, and certainly after my hormone treatments started in 2014, I just didn’t look at the world the same way anymore. I didn’t have the energy to fight for what I believed in. And, even though I tried very hard, I  couldn’t even fake believing in what the company believed in. Once I got a zone to run, I was constantly running around trying to make my bosses happy, my workers happy, and my customers happy. In the craziness, I made no one happy. I totally forgot my credo, which was to make sure my people were taken care of, and everything else was second.

The job was keeping me up at night, and effecting my weekends. To be fair, I was put in charge of one of the most challenging zones in the plant, and after I left, 5 more zone leaders would go through that zone in the next year. There was very little support from management, whose idea of support was if you went to them with a problem, their standard answer was to ask you how YOU were going to fix it or tell you to open an 8 step problem solving matrix to get to the root cause blah blah blah blah. It was a shit storm.

But, I’ve always thought, if I would have been who I once was, I could have handled it. But the problem is, for better or worse, I will never be who I once was.

The Good

Whew, it took us a long time to get here, didn’t it?  The good in this scenario is that when I walked out of my boss’s office the day I lost my zone leader job, the farther I walked, the better I started to feel. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. In the short amount of time it took to walk back to my department, I realized I wasn’t a corporate guy that could sit in meetings and worry about things like cost savings and scrap counts and rolled throughput yields. (I still have no idea what a rolled throughout yield is. Is that something a farmer has?  A record amount of rolled throughput yield? Or is it more biological?  As in, my rolled throughput yield has been very regular lately.) I am now a guy that takes pictures of sunsets and listens to music and writes the occasional poem. And, most days, I’m ok with that. Most days, I’ve learned to live with it. It is my new normal. I’m back running a machine again, I physically work hard, and I’m totally fine with the situation.  And I work ten feet from a massive zone leader board my current boss works on everyday.  It is literally 64 square feet of Excel spread sheets, notes, and other charts and graphs, all in unbelievably grand 4 color harmony.  And I barely notice it.

The Ugly

The jokes about the rolled throughput yield were ugly enough, but one more story about those things. Back in 2014,  we met every week with other departments to have what they called RTY meetings.  We were told these things were very important.  There were signs on machines promoting RTY.  Management made it seem like RTY was going to save the company so much money we would be able to retire on the bonus’s that we were all going to get.  Well, maybe not that extreme, but you get the idea.  And then, in the summer of 2014, we got busy.  Really busy.  And not with busy work.  Real work.  We started working 12 hour days and another 10 on Saturday.  And all of the sudden, the RTY meetings just went away.  And not just went away, they totally disappeared. The signs even came down. The plant manager said we were too busy to lose an hour a week to a meeting, which to me sort of acknowledged that the meetings were a total waste of time. We lost an hour of busy work to gain an hour of real work. It was a small victory for real work. And sometimes a small victory is good enough.

And speaking of victories, I think I did a pretty good job of walking the tight rope. Stevie Ray would’ve been proud. 

Thanks for reading.


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