The obvious ‘secret’: Do what you’re asked
I was scared. I had received my notification that I was transferring from my job at an engineering facility in Pontiac, Michigan back home to Texas. That was the good news. The bad news was that I was going to a truck plant.
New in my career, I sat surrounded by old heads that spent decades in the auto industry. Every one of them talked about the miserable assembly plant lifestyle. They all vaguely agreed that a young guy like myself should do a few years to understand how manufacturing really worked, but all of them also swore that they would retire before going back.
I went to an older employee that I’d formed a bond with. “John” had worked at General Motors for decades in all sorts of roles. White-haired and within arms reach of retirement, he had never promoted beyond the level I was starting at. Nevertheless, he was the go-to guy to get tough projects done. Everyone recognized his wisdom. I remember his words today:
“John,” I asked, “What do I need to do to be successful in an assembly plant?” He knew that what I really meant was how do I survive?
He leaned back in his chair, regarded me for a moment, and told me the secret.
Sometime after you start working there, your boss will ask you to do something. It won’t be impossible or even hard, but it will be a hassle. Just do it.
I nodded at his wisdom out of politeness, then promptly forgot about it. Doing what you’re told doesn’t seem particularly insightful.
Getting to the plant
Fast forward a few months. I started working at the Arlington assembly plant around the first of January. I was assigned to a team tasked with responding to potential supplier defects. Our job entailed reviewing the condition to verify responsibility, documenting the discrepancy, and contacting the vendor to start containment and corrective action.
Like my team in Michigan, I was one of the young guys. My supervisor and the rest of the group all had 20 years or more with the company. Everybody knew their job and happily helped out the new guy. The horror stories were overblown, maybe because the plant was in Texas, or maybe the company had evolved since the 1970s.
The one exception, the one unrelenting fact of life, was the clock. Every minute the line stops has a dollar figure attached and costs the company money. Six-minute increments of unscheduled overtime pay multiplied by two thousand people on a shift add up quickly. Culturally, everything became a crisis. The constant time pressure crushed people.
Doing the job
I didn’t remember John’s advice when I needed it, but I made it through the gate anyway. Sometime during my first month, one of the endless calamities that we endured daily required us to do some research. My supervisor called us together around noon and explained the task.
I don’t remember all of the details, but he wanted us to look up some defect information on our suppliers. This required filtering for suppliers that met the parameters, looking up their DUNS code, and then switching to another application to print out the desired information. There wasn’t a GUI or Windows interface back the either, just old-school black and white DOS-based screens. The task was met with groans and shrugs. Everyone already had their daily fires to fight and this would take a couple of hours.
At our 6 a.m. meeting the next day, my supervisor went around the table. Out of the five of us, I was the only one who had done the work. I was still fresh out of the Air Force where I had worked security for seven years. Not doing a task never entered my head, so I had stayed late to run the reports. My team-mates knew that they would not face any serious consequences because this particular emergency would be forgotten about in a couple of hours anyway.
Learning the lesson
Looking back on it later, I understood John’s words. The task itself was trivial. I didn’t save a rainforest or solve world hunger, I just printed some documents that would go into the shred pile in an hour. I did, however, establish a bond of trust with my new boss.
Long after that crisis faded, he still looked at me as someone who would do what he asked. Other people in the group were question marks. This wasn’t surprising or upsetting, he’d worked with them for decades and knew exactly how each one would react in a given situation. But for me, as the new guy, my one minor success was my whole history to him. I was batting a thousand.
Since that one event, I’ve watched the same pattern repeat. I’ve observed it in other companies and organizations and I’ve even seen it a few times since in the Air Force. Long-term employees, especially in large organizations, can get complacent. It’s easy to do the minimum, and if you don’t think you will get in trouble, the minimum can be very low. Hunger and enthusiasm are great, but just doing the boss wants can put you ahead of the pack.
Of course, the reward for good work is more work. One has to keep up the momentum. Don’t be a one-hit-wonder. But succeeding at the first task builds confidence in a way that can’t be accomplished as easily later, especially if you screw something up!
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.