Ghosts of Eldon Avenue

Before being torn down, they painted over the name and gave the front wall a new coat of paint. Not unlike being buried in your best suit in hopes of absolution.

 As far back as I can remember I have been a little different. I was either the last one to “get” the joke or I was the first one (sometimes the only one). Somehow I was always a “half click” out of sync with the norm.

During my teen years this gave me a mild feeling of being an outsider. Later in my life, the “half click” became an advantage. Not only did I see things differently, but I saw thinks others sometimes didn’t.

While going through college I worked in the auto plants of Detroit during the summer. The work was tough but I could work all the hours I needed and the pay was better than your average intern “gig”. As it turned out, it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

Walking into Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle for the first time was like being led by Virgil through the circles of hell. The plant smelled of grease cake and the blue haze of welding smoke obscured my vision. Fire belched from furnaces and oil covered the floor. Somewhere off in the distance I swear I could hear Cerberus howling.

The first thing that struck me was the “vacant” nature of the workers. They were there, but then again, they weren’t. Their eyes looked like dark sockets, void of light; void of any reflection of the world around them. I wondered how people got like this.

I routinely worked 12 hours a day Monday through Friday, 10 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday, 78 hours a week. Since I was on the low end of the seniority list, I worked 89 days straight without a day off. This was tolerable because I knew that at the end of the summer I would be back in school. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. My co-workers didn’t have that luxury. Like Dante’s inferno this was their eternity.

Most of the time, I worked on the axle assembly lines. Decades later I still wake up in the middle of the night mimicking those motions; pull the left side brake cable, wrap it around the differential, pound the right side brake shut, slide the right side drum on and secure it with jam nuts, then repeat – 216 times an hour; 2,592 time a day.

While this was mind numbing, brutal work, it was about to get surreal. About one weekend a month a couple of my “low seniority” cohorts and I would be assigned to work the “Repair and Reclamation” area. This is where all the rejected axle assemblies were stockpiled. Thinking back over the numbers, the inline rejection rate was slightly higher than 25%.

During our R&R effort we noticed that well over half the rejections were the result of missing differential hex nuts. This was considered a scrap condition because if the nuts weren’t in place when they were machine tightened it would force the gasket and sealant out of place.

Missing hex nuts were caused when a worker at one of the tougher work stations fell behind and didn’t have the time to thread all the nuts. An easy solution was to position a box of hex nuts at the next work station and if a worker saw a missing nut they could thread one on. Three of my more dewy-eyed coworkers and I suggested this to the foreman where the idea was immediately dismissed (in terms my young ears had not heard before). We then decided to “just do it” (after all, how bright could a foreman nicknamed “Toad” be? We envisioned accolades for our insight; maybe even a raise.  A couple of hours later an inspector came sauntering up the line to see why there were no missing hex nuts.

While I was pleased that we had made an impact, I sensed (“half click”) that Cerberus was about to howl again. Within minutes we had several foremen, a gang of engineers and a half dozen union representatives descending on the line (which was now stopped).  I wasn’t sure if we were going to get fired by management or shot by the union. We were no longer thinking about raises. Working as an intern was looking better all the time.

In the midst of this heated discussion I was yanked aside by an irate engineer who shouted, “Kid you may think you are something special but you’re not. You aren’t paid to think, you are paid to do what you’re told.” After the yelling, gnashing of teeth and finger pointing (various fingers) had subsided, the hex nuts were removed from my workstation and we were back running a comfortable 25%+ reject rate. My value to the organization was returned to that of a “beast of burden” and balance had been restored to this dark universe.

For the remaining three weeks that summer, I kept my mouth shut and cashed my checks. The last week before returning to school, I was washing up at the end of shift when I looked up into the restroom mirror. Looking back at me were the dead eyes I had seen my first day at Eldon.

The vertical corpses I worked with hadn’t come to Eldon Avenue with those eyes, they were created by a management that believed intelligence and creativity only existed in the front office.

Management hadn’t learned that with each worker comes a brain. Intelligence and creativity aren’t a result of education; they are a result of an engagement with your work, an ownership in the process. The unions hadn’t learned that every new idea doesn’t result in a layoff. Neither the management nor union understood the value of the sacred relationship between a worker and his work.

Today, more than ever, we need the labor and minds of all our workers. Our people are the only thing that makes us unique in a world of “me too” innovation.

During my time with Eldon, I learned what true waste is. Not the 7 wastes we’ve learned about from lean principles, but the waste of a human mind. No one comes to work to see their talent wasted. When that is all that is left, workers will define their value in other terms. If you bargain only for their physical efforts, you are negotiating for a commodity. When you take satisfaction and ownership of effort away from the employee the value proposition now becomes “more money – less work”; the exact opposite of what we are looking for.  Don’t blame the worker; they are just playing by management rules.

At the time I worked there, Eldon had about 2,000 employees, occupied 48 acres and had a manufacturing foot print of 1.2 million feet. It was a behemoth. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not pro union. However, I do believe that unions exist as a result of poor management.

In 2012 Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle (later renamed Detroit Axle) was torn down. A fence went up around the property. The machinery was quietly removed and the building was leveled. The old girl had lived almost 100 years (built in 1917). While she is gone, her lessons live on. But only for those that are a little “different”.

Barry Stuart

Authenticity: Bridging Personal and Organizational Values

 

 

Early in my career, a mentor offered me an excellent piece of advice. He told me that if I was to be successful in the plastics business, the character of my company would be critical. At least once a year I should ask myself two questions:

 

1. Am I proud of my company?

2. Do I trust my company to do the right thing?

He went on to say that while we are all careful when we make the initial decision to join an organization, companies can change. We need to be sensitive to how these changes affect the organization’s key values, particularly in challenging times. It is easy to start peeling back the layers of our core values to fit short-term economic challenges.

At the time, it seemed like simple advice. While these questions are fairly straightforward, they have become more complex as time went on — as global competition reduced our margin for error. Beyond the surface of these two questions lies a larger, more compelling one, the one he didn’t share with me: What do you do when the answer you get back to either of these questions is “no”?

All too often today we have seen the story of greed and deceit in the private and public sectors. It’s the story of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and others. It’s the story of actions that robbed thousands of people of their savings, jobs and dignity. It’s the story of organizations that treated their values like a sales jingle.

As we watched the legal proc­ess unfold, we saw the perpetrators get what they deserved (or at least part of it). We were amazed at the pain these leaders had inflicted on shareholders and employees.

While these were obviously illegal activities, I have to wonder why they went on so long. They should have hit the organization’s value “radar” long before they became the province of the legal system. Where were the organizational values that allowed this to happen?

For each of the Ken Lays of the world, there were hundreds, if not thousands of others who knew what was going on and chose not to take action. Was it for the profits these employees were reaping or was it out of fear for their jobs — each of us needs to understand this at the personal level.

Enron’s motto was “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” The company’s “Vision and Values” statement said: “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.”

To my point, this is an organization that treated their values like so many words on a yellowing document framed and hanging in the lobby.

Who is responsible for the values of an organization? Does it come from the top down? Are senior executives responsible for a company’s guiding principles? If so, what happened at Enron?

I propose that the character of a company is the sum of all its parts. While senior executives clearly have more leverage on values, they don’t have more power unless they are granted that power by a disengaged workforce.

This is not just financial wrongdoing that we are dealing with. We have witnessed instances where companies have routinely cheated their customers. Even worse, others have put their employees at risk by not supporting and funding a safe work environment.

These positions are becoming more frequently rationalized in today’s competitive market. While we need to survive economically we cannot tie our values to external conditions — one set of values for good times and a second set for more difficult times.

Now, back to my earlier question, What do you do when the answer to my mentor’s two questions is ‘no’?

Companies need to understand that compromising their ethics and values will cost them their best, most productive employees. When faced with the cost of losing key talent, the rationalization falls apart. It’s easy to blame senior manager, but that is an excuse. If we tolerate unethical behavior, we then own it. We own the values we tolerate.

As demonstrated with Enron, can we afford to look the other way?

I propose that every employee is capable and, in fact, responsible, for establishing and maintaining the character and values of their organization. The employee sweeping the floor in the shipping department is no less responsible than the CEO in creating and sustaining the character of our organization.

We need to treat our values less like “cool words” on our website and more like a tattoo, permanent and visible for all to see. This is who we are; this is what we stand for. Each of us shapes our organization.

Homework assignment: The next time you put together your annual budget, take it out to the lobby and compare it to your company’s mission statement hanging on the wall. Make sure you can reconcile the two documents. If you can’t, it might be time to update your resume.

Barry Stuart

Article originally published in Plastics News November 23, 2011. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.