by Paula on April 25, 2012

In my day to day working life I come across all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions. People ask me questions, people share their thoughts and people challenge me. Every now and then something someone says strikes a chord and I play it over in my mind a lot over the coming weeks. Last week I was told that I seem to be able to work at all levels of the business but:

“Where are you most comfortable, the Board Room or the Factory Shop Floor?”

Before I tell you my answer I’d like to share two stories with you of things I have experienced.

Story 1: In a pickle

On return from travelling, in my early twenties, I took work as a temp while looking for the right full time job. I found myself in a short term position as an accounts / office assistant in a well-known Pickle Factory. This involved spending 9-5 in an office with 3 women (Director, Finance Manager & PA/Marketing lady) who, to be polite, weren’t the warmest and easiest to get on with individuals I’d ever met.

In bathroom banter with one of the ladies from the factory shop floor, I asked where people go for lunch. She said that the machines get turned off between 12.30 – 1.30 and they all have a packed lunch and a natter in a warehouse room at the back of the factory. I asked if I could join them and she seemed surprised, (“You office folk don’t normally mix with us”) but welcoming.

The week that followed I busied myself in the office in the mornings and afternoons and had a laugh in the warehouse at lunchtime. Then, I was called into the Director’s private office for a “serious chat”. Did she say:

“We’ve noticed you’re lunching with the factory staff…

a) …fabulous to see you’re making friends and getting to know people.

b) …our relationship with them is limited, we’d welcome any sharing of frustrations or knowledge that you pick up.

c) …what a great example of bringing people together, we’ll join you tomorrow.

d) …you will now take your lunch break one hour later than them so this stops immediately. This is not the behaviour we’d expect from you.

Let me tell you – the answer was (d)…. I think it’s fair to comment that I saw this “them and us” posturing as extremely damaging and needless to say caused major issues further down the line, long after I’d packed my temporary bag & sailed onto brighter things.

Story 2: Where’s the bottle-neck?

When my husband left school one of his early jobs was packing crates of bottles in an alcohol beverage bottling factory. Here is what he told me, complete with my reactions:

“Even though we were only loading pre-bottled drinks onto a crate we had two days induction” Interesting.

“The induction barely touched on stacking crates but was about contamination, checking, and about how we were the most important people on the shop floor as we were the last people to see the bottles before they left the factory, so have a great position of responsibility of making sure what goes out to the customer is perfect” Very impressive.

“On my first day I noticed four bottles had come off the bottling line with no tops so I took them over to my supervisor to alert him to the problem” Excellent.

“He said just to shove them in the middle of a crate where they wouldn’t be noticed and get on with the next crate” Oh dear…

What’s very clear here is that the Managers had an excellent intention to ensure the shop floor staff knew the importance of their role and to invest valuable time and money in providing training. Yet they were completely failing to deliver on intention. It’s clear that there was a good plan started which was never fully followed through, but also what’s the betting that the Supervisor’s bonus or incentive is number of crates out of the door and that stopping to ensure quality personally costs him time and money?

So, back to the question, “Where do I feel most comfortable?”

My answer to this question was I am equally comfortable in both areas. The response was that I can’t be, which is what lead me to further thinking, but I am confident that my answer remains the same.

Whether in the Board Room or on the Factory Shop Floor there are people. It doesn’t matter to me if they are in a suit or a hair net. I care not whether they talk in consultant jargon or local slang. Each person is valuable, has a role to play and needs to be incentivised in a way that offers the correct results to management, while addressing the personal needs of the individual.

Does your company have someone who can bring those pools of valuable people together or are you being hindered by a gulf between “them” and “us”?

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