Friday, September 4, 2009

Companies Getting Fat on "Lean"

Stress carries with it a scent. Drying sweat. Sour breath, which can be attributed to the amount of heavy breathing as the heart quickens it’s pace. A thin layer of tension, like cigarette smoke hovering several inches above eye level. Lingering.

We could all smell it as we entered the central meeting room at work. See it in the somber faces of the office personnel, already seated on either side of our manager. Even before a word had been spoken, the members of my department, our numbers thinned dramatically over the past month, knew we were about to hear of our employer’s economic decisions, his “vision of the future,” of our company.

The overhead lighting had been dimmed. The air stuffy. The smell of tension embracing us as we took our seats around the U-shaped table.

We’d heard the rumors. A re-shaping of our company in order to survive our dwindling market base. Changing our way of thinking. Getting “Lean.” A phrase I’d been hearing a lot recently. On the news. In the papers. Even once out of President Obama’s mouth during one of his inspirational speeches.

We’d spoken amongst ourselves on the shop floor. Many of us had been witness to the mass firings of our fellow employees. The managers escorting a disgruntled worker, his or her face flushed, some angry, others in shock, some merely shrugging their shoulders and feigning a kind of mischievous rebellion, while their insides quaked as they headed for the exit. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to whom was chosen to be excused from employment. We had no choice but to clock in and wait. To see if one of us would be next. If we were on that list. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Our department manager rose from his chair, his face stern, failing to make eye contact with any of us. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His silver crew cut resembled that of an army cadet and personified an intimidating demeanor. He preferred looking down on us. His subordinates.

I watched his jaw muscles flex as he angrily chewed on a piece of gum. Like in every other task he’d supervised at the work place, he couldn’t simply enjoy a stick of sugarless Spearmint. He attacked it like a ravenous cougar upon an unsuspecting antelope. His temples pulsated as he chewed, like a second heart beat. He was always chewing gum. I figured him for an ex smoker, still haunted by the craving.

He folded his arms over his chest and elected to spare us of any small talk before laying down the terms of our new company structure. After all, we were on the clock and the machines on the shop floor were quiet. Quiet machines meant zero production which is unacceptable.

“We are re-structuring the company,” our manager began, eyes focused on a shadowy wall which couldn’t glare back. “Those of you in this room have been chosen as the employees we want for the new face of our company. It’s time for change in order to survive. Time to get Lean.”

I listened as our manager spelled out our fate. They’d decided to follow in the steps of Toyota, the founders of the concept of “Lean,”originally called The Toyota Production System.

Our inventory would be shrunk down to within days of current need. Schedules would be tighter, a level of stress pulled a bit more taut. However the money pocketed from the lack of idly sitting inventory made everything worth the challenge.

Then the bad news.

Our company was shrinking from a three shift operation to two, in order to consolidate what was left of our workforce, and to allow them to shut down the facility at night in order to save energy. As a result, my crew had been chosen to begin operations on what had been termed “The Toyota Shift.” A ten hour work day, lasting Monday thru Thursday. We would be given a three day weekend. However, the hours spent at work would begin in the early afternoon, and last until the wee hours of night.

I glanced around the meeting room, watching as the realization of what we’d just been told, began sinking in with my co-workers. Those of us who were married, who’s wives also had jobs, would no longer get to see them throughout the week. And worse yet, those of us who had children in school, would literally never see them until they hopped off the bus on Friday afternoon. The Toyota Shift.

Jaws were held open. Fists were clenched. The smell of stress intensified. Then we realized that our manager hadn’t stopped talking. There was more to come.

“You will no longer have a paid lunch,” he continued without pause. Not allowing for any rebuttal. Refusing to give any of us a chance at allowing the news to sink in. “Therefore, your shift will actually be clocked as ten and a half hours, with thirty minutes deducted automatically. That being said however, you will not be allowed to leave the premises for lunch. Anyone caught leaving the property during their shift will be released from employment.”

“That’s not even legal,” one of my co-workers spoke up, his face the color of crimson, his hands closed into fisted clubs.

“Of course it is,” our manager scoffed. “Don’t be silly.” He smothered a grin with his palm before continuing. “This is all part of the ‘Lean’ process. Teamwork and continuous flow. Everyone working together while building a stronger future for this company.”

He then grew quiet, noticing the hostile expressions painted across every face in the room. A scowl formed as he said, “You should just be happy you even have a job.”

Moments later our manager hastily excused himself, mumbling something under his breath about wanting to catch the first inning of his son’s baseball game. The room fell quiet, it’s occupants seething.

The following Monday, families were left behind, hobbies and other interests were shoved away into hallway closets or an empty corner in an upstairs attic, as my fellow co-workers and I clocked in on The Toyota Shift.

By Wednesday, an elderly lady from a neighboring department was fired for using her cell phone on the shop floor. She’d been calling home to check in on her teenage daughter who now had to fend for herself.

Weeks crawled by like slugs over wet pavement. Then months. Business eventually picked up. Orders increased. The demand for supply steadily grew.

Many of us were asked to start working five days instead of four. We refused, choosing our families over an offer of overtime pay.

Management shrugged their shoulders toward our unwillingness to cooperate and re-structured our work schedule, forcing us to work a fifth day. What was left of my home life had been cut even thinner. I’d lost another day with my kids.

A young father of two, struggling to make ends meet, slipped and fell on a grease spill back in Assembly one night. He twisted his lower back and was forced to go on light duty employment for three weeks. Upon his return to the assembly line almost a month later, he was released from employment less than an hour into his shift, informed that his duties were no longer needed. He was never replaced on the assembly line. Everyone else simply had to move a little faster to make up for the loss.

And the profits grew. The concept of “Lean” was working. At least for them.

During our company’s annual Christmas shutdown week, common normalcy throughout years past was for employees to use forty hours worth of vacation time in order to cover their finances during the downtime. This year more than half the work force chose instead to apply for unemployment, thus saving their precious earned time off for school events, youth athletics, and family outings.

Blindsided by the turn of events, and calculating the high amount of vacation time about to be spent by it’s disgruntled employees over the upcoming summer, company executives huddled together at some point between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, and decided on a plan of action.

We returned to work the following week and discovered that a new policy had been put in place during our absence. A vacation schedule. Each production employee was given a specific week in order to exercise our vacation time. We were no longer able to use our earned time off as we deemed it necessary. It would now be determined for us, by aging executives lounging behind mahogany desks who didn’t know us by our faces, but rather our clock numbers. Who’d never met any of our families and never would. Yet they wielded the power to control our lives with iron-clad amendments and harsh bureaucracy. Families were shoved further away as the company’s needs hissed for still more.

In time my co-workers resembled zombies. Faces pale. Expressions vacant. Walking like robots from one department to another, heads tilted forward, eyes staring outward but seeing nothing. For there was nothing to see. I knew this because I was a zombie too.

We’d arrive home from work to a darkened home. To a family asleep. We’d awaken the following morning to an empty home. To a family already gone for the day.

In early Summer of the following year, I was granted a rare treat when my oldest son had a Saturday evening baseball game to which I could actually attend without needing approval from my employer.

He played well, but the team lost. Too many errors cost them the game in the closing moments of the final inning. Considering how I’d coached the team the year prior, before “Lean” came into effect, I was saddened at how my son’s ball team had seemed to regress with the new coaching staff who’d taken my place.

I struck up a conversation with my replacement following the game, hoping to maybe offer some advice on coaching technique or anything else he was in need of. Minutes passed and we grew comfortable with each other.

He revealed to me that he’d been laid off from his job months earlier. How his family had been living on unemployment since before Christmas. He then informed me of how he’d been able to earn a grant which he was using to go back to school.

Sacrifices had been made. Trading down on the family car. Shopping at Aldi’s instead of Wal-Mart. A cheaper cell phone plan. A cheaper everything.

Then a smile creased his lips as he spoke of a Summer spent at home. Late night walks with his wife. Baseball practice every other day with his son and the team. Taking up an old hobby of building model trains in the shed behind the house. A Summer he’d remember.

“But hey,” he said, clapping a hand upon my shoulder. “You’re one of the lucky ones. At least you still have a job.”

I released a sigh while nodding my head, my eyes falling to the dusty ball diamond under my feet.

The following week, another employee was fired for using his cell phone at work. Calling home to his wife.

A month later our lead electrician handed in his two week notice. He’d accepted a position at the local hardware store. Customer service. An eight dollar an hour pay cut in salary. And yet, I’d never seen him so happy.

It was a chilly day in early October. One of those “Indian Summer” afternoons with an endless dazzle of sunshine, minus the grinding humidity of August. I had just backed out of my driveway and was sitting in my car staring up at the only stop light in town.

On my way to work.

On the other side of the square and across the alley from the country store, I caught sight of two people shooting baskets on the court at the town park. I watched the basketball bouncing from a father to his son, the sound of leather meeting pavement coming shortly after. Then I recognized him. My son’s baseball coach. Shooting baskets with his boy after school.

I turned my head and stared at the yellow school bus looming before me on the other side of the square. Waiting for the light to turn green, so that it could pass me by and drop off my kids at home.

I hadn’t seen them in four days.

I slowly turned back to the boy and his father at the park.

The light turned green. The bus passed me by. My foot lifted from the brake, then hesitated. Awaiting further instructions.

From behind me the sound of a car horn alerted my attention. Just a tap. In another moment I’d surely hear another.

In my rear view mirror I could see that the bus had stopped at my driveway. The angle was too sharp to see my kids step off and bound across the street. I’d missed them again.

I waited a moment longer, thinking what if...

Then my foot eased onto the accelerator, my car rolling forward through the intersection.

I shook my head, holding up blinders over those troubling thoughts.

“Need to be thankful I even have a job,” I mumbled to myself.

Well, shouldn’t I?