Require excellence or expect mediocrity

Dec. 1, 2004
Accepting inefficiencies or ineptness can have dire consequences
By Paul StudebakerUnion, seniority and discrimination laws and rules exist for good reasons. Turn a millwright loose on a motor control and you’re likely to smoke a circuit board … or the millwright. Have an electrician shim a gearbox? Don’t make me laugh. It’s good to reward loyalty and experience with perks and financial security, and to find appropriate work for people of all stripes and abilities.

But when the rules get too unwieldy, watch out. Management won’t accept poor or inefficient performance forever, and frustrating them can lead to drastic actions, especially if their backs are against the wall.

Back in 1983, the manager of the magnet factory where I worked was frustrated by union rules, inflated salaries and recalcitrant managers who saw no problem with using three men to do the work of one. With red ink starting to flow, he negotiated a leveraged buyout: He, his investors and a bank arranged to take ownership from our corporate conglomerate.

The next step was to fire everybody. We all had to reapply to win our jobs in the new company. Not all were rehired, though most were and under the same terms as before. Missing were the previously entrenched individuals who the new owner felt were causing the plant to fail.

Changing ownership is just one increasingly common way management is excising inefficiencies and breaking what they see as unworkable contracts and obligations. Others include building plants or sourcing product in foreign countries, and outsourcing functions from IT to, as you’ll see in this month’s cover story, the entire maintenance function to local or foreign service providers.

It’s a trend, but it has brakes. High-level management has heard horror stories and many have personally experienced the problems that come with these solutions. Public scrutiny is up, and it’s increasingly politically unpopular to use these techniques to transform a workforce. These days, it takes more than an attractive set of numbers to make managers give the ax to a plant or department – they also need a grudge.

We’re publishing this issue’s cover story not to endorse or promote maintenance outsourcing as a solution, but to let you and everyone like you know that this approach exists. In this example, it was tough to implement, but it works very well. And not necessarily because the contractor is so much more competent than the plant staff (though it may well be) but because the plant was able to jettison a group of people, a set of practices and a culture that were killing it.

If you find yourself contributing to or accepting inefficiencies, ineptness and an adversarial environment, please realize your managers have this option. Circulate this article among your coworkers. Take some time to look at your situation from the bosses’ point of view, and try to do your job as if they could choose between you and a very competent contractor. Because they can.

Paul Studebaker is editor in chief of Plant Services magazine. E-mail him at
[email protected].