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Insight From the Blue Collar: A Case Study (Problem, Answer, Solution)

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Opening Insights: Introduction

A field research project examining a culture [organization]
that could benefit and address its problems with a PWI Co-Lab

I have worked in my current position for the better part of a year now. The company I work for rents equipment and sells supplies for people who are moving. We rent a variety of trucks and trailers, as well as provide and install the hardware on personal vehicles for towing setups. The goal of the company is to provide the best suited equipment at a low cost for people who are moving (themselves).

When I first started I was responsible for the basic tasks of receiving equipment being returned, cleaning it, doing basic inspections, and stocking the sales items in the store. I was fortunate enough to have a boss at the time that was willing to teach me quickly and soon I learned additional skills that allowed me to begin working more directly with customers, identifying solutions for their needs, repairing equipment, and helping to direct the work of others. With an absence of an official Assistant Manager and a high turnover rate in the position of the General Manager, myself and a couple other experienced co-workers have come to fill those voids, learning to basically run the store ourselves; either independently or together, depending on each week’s schedule.

At the beginning, I was quite “green.” I didn’t know anything about the company, how things worked, or about the people I would come to depend on. I tried to soak up every bit of information I could, constantly asking questions and looking to those willing to help train me. Months later I have a new perspective. With a more complete understanding of those around me and all the little processes and procedures for carrying out our daily tasks, I have begun to question things.

I’ve noticed that, at least on the store-side of the company, the side that deals directly with our customer base, it is structured very rigidly in the form of top-down management. There are very few feedback mechanisms for both customers and employees to provide suggestions, come up with ideas, or even call attention to problems that need to be fixed.

Informational Insights: Dilemma

I now face a dilemma that many of us have faced at one point or another:

  • I can either continue to be vocal and stand alone, wanting to fix something that isn’t right, or accept that this is just the way things are, take a step back, stop caring so much, and collect my paycheck. I have taken the apathetic route before. I have also seen those close to me play the role of the martyr. Neither ended well for the individual, the company, and those around them.
  • However, I have come to learn of a third choice. One that allows myself and anyone interested and invested to seek answers together. To create an environment where honesty, selflessness, purity of intention and reality can be experienced, new ideas can be openly discussed, without judgment, and collaboratively pursued to seek lasting solutions that will benefit us all.

The following pages are just a few of the problems I see in my workplace (concisely summarized for the sake of brevity) that either others don’t see yet, or have given up trying to fix because they couldn’t find the support needed to overcome them. If any of this resonates with you, regardless of where you work, I invite you to join in working to create much more healthy, supportive, efficient, and profitable workplaces.

This Case Study consists of the following pieces:

Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Problem 1
Sloppy Work

One day a customer and his son came in to rent a trailer they were taking out of state. The day before another store up the road had installed their hitch and wiring. After completing the paperwork, I went outside with the customers to get the trailer hooked up. I noticed the hardware on their vehicle was sitting quite low. I told them that, for safety purposes, I needed to fix it before they left. The father said, he thought it had looked too low and it had even scraped the pavement when they pulled onto our store’s lot when turning off the main road, but trusted that the employees who had done the work had done it properly. This wasn't a big deal to correct, it was something I could fix but would take a little time. Unfortunately, we were quite busy that morning but safety is prioritized over attending to an increasing number of waiting customers.

After getting that squared away I went to hook up the trailer. When I did the light check I discovered one of the turn signals wasn’t working on the trailer; something that is supposed to be inspected every time a piece of equipment is returned. Again, not a large problem to fix as I had more trailers. I got them a replacement and then went back inside to correct the paperwork so the system was accurate about which trailer was leaving and which needed maintenance. What was a big problem was that this all required took additional time on an already busy morning.

As I was hooking up the new trailer the father asked if it was normal to have these kinds of problems, referring to the broken light, the incorrectly installed hardware on his vehicle, and the long line of impatient customers inside. His question didn’t carry words of judgment, hostility, or even frustration. I told him that mistakes are made from time to time but it isn’t common for multiple ones to happen at once. I apologized on behalf of the company for the inconvenience and said that I understood our work appeared sloppy and I would speak with my manager about it so we can work to ensure these mistakes don’t repeat themselves.

As it happens, my boss was walking by unnoticed, and had overheard this. The father and son were finally all set to go and were very thankful that time had been spent to make sure everything was taken care of. After they left my boss told me that I can't be telling customer something was done sloppy. That it's bad for the company. That they could write a review that says this location isn't a good place to rent from. And, if they were happy with the result, it would just benefit me because they would remember that I helped them and that is selfish.

There are four very distinct problems here:

  • Our company installed hardware for a customer incorrectly because nobody checked to ask what they would be using it for in order to ensure the proper configuration.
  • We had a trailer in need of maintenance that was checked in as “customer-ready."
  • We had a manager that cared more about the image of himself and his store rather than providing our customers with proper and safe equipment; which, ironically, will hurt his and his store’s image if those are not provided.
  • The manager's values are not aligned with those of the employees, the customer, nor the ones our company claims to have.

Now, these are obvious symptoms to much deeper, yet simpler, root causes. But, we’ll get to those later. For now, the very obvious answer to these problems is attention to detail in our tasks and caring enough to provide the customer what is needed [a challenge for most of the millennial generation].

The costs of these problems are:

  • A rental process that should have taken 10 min took 45
  • An employee developing hostility and resentment towards his superior
  • Personnel were tasked to fixing mistakes that shouldn’t have been made in the first place (waste of labor resources)
  • Long lines developing inside with impatient customers due to an employee being tasked with fixing these problems
  • The customer experiencing poor and rushed worked initially and a loss of confidence/trust in the company’s ability to provide a safe product and service

Had this problem not been corrected, it is very likely the customers would have had problems on their trip, if not an accident. There are websites I have found that share the personal stories of customers who have had problems and accidents resulting in some very severe consequences and this could have been one more to add. In particular, many of these stories are about accidents from when customers were towing trailers.

Everyday we get customers who aren’t experienced in towing; how to change their driving, to properly load and secure cargo, hook up and unhook their trailers, or even if they really have a vehicle that is capable of safely towing. Just the other day I spoke with a man who wanted to get a hitch on the back of his Camaro so that he could tow a small trailer. Technically, the frame of the Camaro is rated to pull up to 2,000 lbs. but the vehicle isn’t designed for that. Basically, we have unknowledgeable customers who aren't familiar with using the various products we provide and it’s not their fault, they’ve never been educated. They see a company who can legally rent things to anyone with a valid license and assume that just because there is a brake pedal, a steering wheel, and an automatic transmission, they’re going to be just fine; forgetting that the turning radius, center of gravity, acceleration, braking, and your view of blind spots all change.

To greatly compound the problem, we live in a society where everyone expects everything right away. Customers come in, without reservations, without doing research, and say “I need a 26' truck to go to Seattle, Washington. In order to meet that expectation my company drives the need for fast service into its employees’ heads. What results is a business model that rents unfamiliar moving equipment to an unknowledgeable customer base like it’s a fast food restaurant. This is not a recipe for long-term customer satisfaction, positive perceptions by the public, or even a lasting business.

Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

 Problem 2
Poor Planning/Foresight


All our store employees are tasked with doing an annual inventory count. This required that we check, verify and / or correct our digital record of every part number, every nut and bolt, every replacement tail light cover, etc. It’s a pain, but the reality is that it’s something that needs to be done. Unfortunately, this particular year was a fiasco.

At the beginning of the year our superiors, above the store-level, decided we should re-arrange our lot. In the process, they rearranged just about everything; how our equipment was parked and positioned, the layout of the store itself, where we stored hitches and all the items required for repairs, and our tooling. While change is often resisted, in itself it is not a bad thing. More importantly, it is truly inevitable. However, this experience turned out to be a mess. To be fair, I’m not claiming that things were properly organized beforehand but this just made it worse. Tens of thousands of dollars of inventory, primarily hitches were thrown away and not accurately adjusted in the computer records. The numerous bins for repair items (bolts, lights, gas caps, decals, etc.) were disorganized and most of them contained the wrong parts. Then, throw a part numbering system into the mix that is completely void of any discernable logic and it becomes all the more difficult.

Accurately doing a full and complete inventory count in one night is no longer possible. But, we had our timeline and it was outside of normal work hours, into the evening with everyone wanting to go home, so we “got it done.” That means we counted what we could and used our best guess for the rest.

The answer to this problem would have been and needs to be, to get everything organized before an attempt is made to catalog and record it. We could have started that effort days beforehand, on the weekend or even months ago when it was observed that things were not in their proper places.

The costs of this problem are:

  • An inaccurate count of the store’s inventory
  • High inefficiency when doing this work due to excessive time requirements for locating the proper hardware
  • An entire staff resentful at the managers for not seeing the problem and even attempting to solve it ahead of time (employees don’t feel heard)
Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Problem 3
Disorganized Equipment On-The-Lot

There is a recurring problem at work that has not only begun in the last couple months, it’s consistently getting worse. That is the equipment that our store rents out is disorganized and not properly recorded. We have a simple process which I’ll explain as briefly as I can.


Trucks, trailers, and towing equipment are to be parked in those respective groups.
Within each of those they are to be separated by size/model. Ex: pick-up trucks together, cargo vans together, 10’ trucks together, 15’ trucks together, and so on. Then further separated into categories of either rotation (have to come back to the store) or one-way (can be taken to other stores.) When they are parked, the employee is to write the row and position down on the tag that is created for each piece of equipment when it was initially inspected at the end of each rental. Then they bring that tag inside, hand it to someone working behind the counter who then records the location in the computer system and then hangs the tag (and key if applicable) on the wall behind the counter, which is also organized by row designations.

What this organization process allows is for an employee to rent equipment, one that is in front and ready to go, in a timely manner without having to spend the time going out to see what is in front or from assigning the wrong piece of equipment and then other employees being required to “dig it out.” This saves an incredible amount of time and effort, especially on busy days.

However, because this process is not regularly followed we often, pause when doing a rental and call over the radio for someone to go check what is up front. This helps to prevent re-work but is also unnecessary if everything had been done correctly in the first place. What ends up happening is personnel are tasked with fixing problems as a result of disorganization. Whatever it was they were working on either takes longer, or doesn’t get finished. Frustration builds from constant interruptions to handle these fixes. Personnel spend hours a day reorganizing everything to the way it is supposed to be when they could otherwise be doing value-added tasks.

Granted, we have had a batch of new employees and there is a learning curve that needs to be acknowledged. However, they have been here a month or more and parking and recording locations is not a complex task. Instead of the problem decreasing, it is getting worse, and more frequent… and it’s not just the new guys.

The obvious answer is very simple: park equipment where there are designated locations and exercise diligence in recording their locations. Unfortunately, there are always legitimate things that cause a breakdown in even the simplest of processes. The most common is not having enough employees working to meet the work demands during a rush. Repairs or housekeeping tasks requiring the tasking of those who are normally receiving, cleaning, and parking, a piece of equipment is deemed in need of repair and we don’t want to park that in front and block the ones behind it.

In these cases, we see that teaching an employee how to think a.k.a. how to problem solve is more valuable than teaching them to follow a specific procedure to the letter. Because, as soon as something doesn’t perfectly fit into a predefined scenario, they don’t know what to do.

Overall, this very simple problem still has many costs:

  • Morale engagement
  • Inefficiency in the rental process
  • Wasted labor resources in regular reorganization efforts
  • Decrease productivity, work satisfaction, employee loyalty
  • Frustrated customers with increased wait times and/or apparent disorganization
  • Tasks being left undone and forgotten due to regular interruptions for problem fixing
  • Frustrated employees, often at each other, resulting in a more hostile work environment
Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Problem 4
Management Turnover/Poor Training

Two months ago my boss was reassigned to another store. He was a person that everyone respected, was very knowledgeable on the technical requirements of the various jobs and tasks within each store, and one of the few people that genuinely cares about his employees and his customers. However, things were not perfect under his leadership. We had our challenges and he did the best he could to overcome them, with the limited information, training, and authority that he had been given. The reassignment was seen as a punishment by the employees and an unjust one at that. The decision was also unforeseen and was not well received by the employees who were left without a boss.

Shortly after that, a new person, fresh out of the General Manager Training Program, was temporarily assigned to our store. He was not ready for a store of his own, especially one as uniquely challenging as the one I work at. To be fair to him, this was not his decision, he was put there by the powers that be and had no influence on the decision to remove the old manager. Unfortunately, that still left him in a hostile work environment and the focal point of much hostility.

After my initial emotional reaction of hostility and after some wise guidance from my mentor and peers in the PWI Co-Lab (a leadership training and development program I am a part of outside of work), I became willing to give this new guy a chance. He needed to learn and it made more sense in working to support him and help train him than fight him every step of the way, as some of the other employees did.

Two months later, we were still having problems. This isn’t going to turn onto a rant about my boss so, I’ll simply state that the problems involved: an inability to accurately and efficiently carry out daily tasks, work with customers, assess problems, find answers, problem solve, communicate, collaborate, learn, and earn the respect of his employees.

It seems that no one wants to be a General Manager: in the last couple of months two other General Managers at other stores have quit. The man who was designated to be our permanent manager showed some promise but after 3 months of training he still required a lot of help from lower employees to carry out some very basic tasks. To be clear, it is not the managers’ fault. They are simply doing what they are trained to do. Or, more accurately, not doing what they haven’t been taught to do.

The real problem is, the lack of training General Managers receive, doesn’t stop animosity developing between them and their subordinates. Instead of partnering with their employees, asking questions, learning of common challenges and looking to solve problems, they do what their “manual” says to do, as disconnected from reality as it is. Overall, what we see are the results of an ineffective training program.

Some of these costs are:

  • Mangers who are “yes” men/women, and not real value-added leaders
  • Insubordinate employees
  • Hostile work environment
  • Inability to think for oneself
    • They are taught what to think, not how to think, and the moment something doesn’t fit within a predetermined scenario, they are at a loss
    • This is the problem with rule-based training
  • High turnover of both managers and basic store employees
  • Due to an inability to participate in change and improvement, the employees that do remain over time, become apathetic. No longer caring about the quality of their work and workplace, but just determined to show up, collect their paycheck, and go home. This results in:
    • Pay check mentality
    • A lack of customer care
    • A lack of company ethics
    • A lack of employee loyalty

A month ago I was offered the opportunity to start the General Manager Training Program, which would lead to me being a store manager. I said I would need to think about it. In the time since, I have paid much more attention to the challenges my immediate superiors face... and frankly, it doesn’t seem worth it. Yes, an increase in pay would be very helpful, as would  full-time hours and associated benefits. However, for the large amount of time a General Manager is expected to put in, the pay isn’t actually that much better. On top of that, and more importantly, is the dramatic increase in RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY, without any increase in AUTHORITY to be able to achieve the goals that are set for them.

Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Problem 5
Drugs, Alcohol & Cultural Immaturity

Before I start into this sensitive subject I want to say up front, that I used to be a very heavy drinker myself and only in the last year has that changed. My observations in no way convey any type of judgement as I have been there myself. That being said, I have seen clear evidence of drug and alcohol problems within my co-workers on a number of different occasions.

  • On Thanksgiving, a co-worker took a break and discretely ran to the liquor store. He and another employee proceeded to "partake" outside for the rest of the day. I hadn't noticed until I walked by the tool cart that was outside and could smell the alcohol from the "water" cups that were there. There are many problems with this but I would like to point out that this is right where customers arrive to return their equipment so any customer who came through likely noticed this as well.
  • In the days leading up to New Year's Eve, employees were discussing, not so discretely, where to find cocaine for the best price.
  • One Sunday we had a staff meeting after hours. After the meeting was over, a group of my co-workers hung out in the parking lot and proceeded to have a little private party, admitting that they got pretty drunk by the end of it. Two admitted, with little remorse or even awareness that it is wrong, to driving home drunk.

The company, like most, has a policy against illegal substances as well as controlled substances being used in the workplace. And, like most, there is little enforcement of that policy. We supposedly do random drug testing. I found out that this is only done on full-time employees. Given the fact that a vast majority of the employees on the store-side of the business are limited, by policy, to part-time work, they are never screened. Additionally, I have not heard of any of our full-timers being called for testing.  It may occur once a year when it is time to re-up their benefits or after an on-duty accident involving a company vehicle.

I question whether the company does not care or is it just that the company knows how many people wouldn't pass and doesn't have a solution and therefore chooses to turn a blind eye to a growing problem; both within the company and within our society.

Whether it's reactionary behavior based on emotions, an inability to understand cause and effect, or seeking an altered state of mind through drugs and alcohol, we see a growing trend of immaturity in "adults" today. I know because I am one of them myself. Within our company a vast, vast majority of the employees are emotionally immature. We don't see each other as equals, are constantly judging, and playing the passive and aggressive roles in games to control. But, it doesn't have to be this way.

At one point, we had an employee at our store who faced some very severe challenges. When he worked, he would work hard. Unfortunately, he often disappeared for long periods of time, always seen taking his backpack with him as he headed off. It became very frustrating for his manager, as well as his co-workers because he did not show up on time, or at all, and when he did could not be depended on to help due to those prolonged absences.

One day, when we were particularly busy and in need of help I called over the radio for someone to go find him. He heard the radio call and became incredibly agitated. He was in the bathroom and his reaction was that nobody bothers the other employees when they are in the bathroom. The reality was that he was going to be interrupted from engaging in whatever addiction (behavioral or substance abuse) he was pursuing. Shortly thereafter, he stopped coming in to work altogether and he and our superiors quietly agreed for him to leave because of medical reasons.

What is truly unfortunate is that this employee has problems, like most of us, the signs were apparent and the employees didn’t know how to recognize the symptoms to provide support and the company doesn’t have an effective program to address such a problem. Additionally, his brother, who has worked for us for quite some time, is no longer coming to work regularly. When he does it is often hours late and work, specific for him, has piled up in the interim.

Beyond the problems specific to individuals what we see here are the effects from having a very high employee turnover rate. With so many people coming and going, it is very difficult to either fire (if absolutely necessary) or offer solutions (that may take away from the amount of time that they can work) strictly because the individual stores and the company can’t afford to lose any more manpower. If someone is capable of doing the bare minimum tasks, even inconsistently, they can’t be let go or provided help due to the increased shortage of manpower that would result.

Managers are afraid to terminate someone because they are not trained on how to do so and thus shy away from conflict and they can’t offer help or even point an employee in the right direction because there is currently none to be had. What I’ve seen firsthand is:

  • Some employees having to make up for the lack of productivity of others – creating resentment
  • Lack of trust in their superiors to create and maintain an effective and cohesive work environment
  • Poor customer service due to shortages in manpower – whether it be due to employees not working as they should or there isn't enough of them to begin with
  • An attitude of survival where the employees become focused on themselves, not getting fired, and not working for improvement because they’re already doing the work for others as well as their own and haven’t seen acknowledgement or reward for it
Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Answer

Many of these problems are specific to my experiences within my company. But, I’m willing to bet they describe some very common themes found in a variety of workplaces.

Defining and developing an answer to a problem is quite simple. You clearly and completely identify a problem, analyze what the complement to that problem is and there is your answer.

However, that doesn’t solve anything. A true solution fully addresses a problem and, when implemented, it lasts...


Introduction|Problem 1|Problem 2|Problem 3|Problem 4|Problem 5|Answer|Solution

Solution

What I have described in this case study are symptoms. Problems that are inherently obvious, on the surface, to anyone trained to discern what is right and thus able to see what is wrong. But, these symptoms stem from root causes. And to be able to bring about positive and lasting change you need to both identify what those deep-rooted causes are, as well as have the resources to implement a solution.

What I see, underneath these superficial symptoms, are some simple yet resilient challenges the company needs to overcome if it wishes to continue to be a leader in its industry:

  • Cultural immaturity
  • Lack of communication both horizontally and vertically within the company and with customers
  • Company values that do not lead to long-term profitability
  • Non-disclosed behavioral and substance addiction
  • Emotional inequality between co-workers
  • Misaligned employee and company values
  • High turnover of staff and managers
  • Ineffective training programs

Each of these challenges can be addressed in a simple and collaborative process to:  

  • Improve Training Programs: No matter what level, a basic customer service rep or General Manager, training needs to be done from a principle-based approach, not a rule-based one. This would empower employees in any position they would be able to problem solve and make certain decisions (in accordance with their structural authority level) on their own and they would be good decisions because their values would be aligned.
  • Creating Healthy Organization Cultures: A work environment that is healthy needs to be developed. One where superiors, subordinates, and peers are free to work together, take direction and provide feedback all in the interest in creating a higher level of productivity and efficiency. We would be able to let go of what we have now, which are apathetic and hostile attitudes, focused on surviving individually.
  • Inject Emotional Maturity Into The Organization: Through developing emotional maturity (self-authority, self-responsibility, and self-accountability) we would experience a dramatic increase in the quality of our work and our ability to provide our customers with the safest and most effective equipment that they need. Learning and applying an adult thinking process, where our decisions and actions are not dictated by emotional reactions, will lead to effective problem solving, clear communication, and an overall much healthier and supportive work environment.
  • Implement Addiction Recovery Intervention, Treatment and Aftercare Support. Address three core elements of addiction:
    1. Controlling behavior
    2. Judgement of others
    3. Secrecy

Moving forward...

Possibilities for Consideration

Less than a year ago, I would have told you that the challenges the company I work for faces and the nation as a whole are insurmountable and hopeless, but that was before I joined the PWI Co-Lab. Before I joined the PWI Co-Lab I didn’t know how to see, care, assess and discern the problem, answer and solution. In the PWI Co-Lab I have learned how to see, care, assess and discern the problem, answer and experience real solutions that had resulted in long-term and lasting change for myself and other team members. The PWI Co-Lab has opened my eyes to the possibilities of structured collaboration, solidarity and unity.

Take a moment and examine…

  • As you reviewed the material above, what stood out to you?
  • What is the potential impact, economically and/or socially?
  • What action is needed to stop or support this idea?
  • You may want to consider whether you:
    • want to be aware of,
    • should become supportive of,
    • would want to be active in this topic?

Add Your Insight

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Being willing is not enough; we must do.
LEONARDO DA VINCI



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