Early job experiences can have a profound impact on how we approach the workday. Here is one of mine from my very first job:
When I was twelve years old, using my brother’s social security card because I was too young to work, I got a job at a seafood restaurant hauling trays of breaded fish and five-gallon pails of coleslaw and potato salad from the second floor preparation area to the kitchen adjacent to the restaurant. While I wouldn’t have been inclined at the time to identify my first job as “waste of transport,” the relative locations of prep and kitchen seemed odd to me. This layout required me carry heavy trays of breaded fish down a flight of stairs to be loaded on a cart that was then wheeled across a bumpy back lot to the kitchen. The restaurant’s countermeasure to this transport problem was to hire energetic, wiry kids to do the job. They paid me a dollar an hour, which delighted me at the time.
One Saturday morning as we prepared for a busy lunch, a co-worker accidentally dropped a large tub of snapper soup while delivering it to the kitchen. I watched as the soup splashed from the pot and soaked into the restaurant carpet. After the flurry of activity to clean up the mess, my coworker, also covered in snapper soup was reprimanded for his mistake. The cost of the soup would be deducted from his pay. By my estimation he’d therefore be working for free for at least two weeks. So he quit. The whole situation seemed unfair to me at the time, as my co-worker had been asked to carry a large pail of hot soup using only the rim of the pail that overlapped the serving tray. (Today, we’d call this, “Muri”.) Management gave him an unreasonable task and then punished him when a problem resulted. The punishment ended in the loss of a good employee and a stark lesson for those of us who still had jobs – a lesson that caused an unfortunate decision by me several weeks later:
The coleslaw and potato salad had been prepared for the day – definitely batch production – and packaged for transport into five-gallon stainless steel buckets. “Lucky for me,” I thought, “that these buckets at least have handles,” unlike the warming tray tub that my unfortunate ex-coworker had dropped a few weeks earlier. I carried two cans at a time down the stairs from the prep area and loaded them onto a cart for transport to the kitchen storage area. The cart, the same as used in many factories, had two shelves, one that I loaded with six buckets of coleslaw and the other with six buckets of potato salad. In retrospect, it probably would have been easier and faster for me to just transport the buckets two at a time by hand. But the truck was the standard, presumably because mechanized transport was deemed more efficient than manual.
Once the cart was full, I proceeded to push it across the back lot to the kitchen. You may guess where this story is headed by now: In the middle of the back lot, the cart hit a bump in such a way that caused it to dip suddenly to the left. Three of the containers on the top of the cart flipped off and lay on the ground like potato salad cornucopias, half of their contents spilt to the lot. In an instant, I reflected on the recent snapper soup episode, then glanced around the lot to see if anyone had seen the accident. Nearby to my right was an ice machine with a shovel hanging to the side.I am not proud of what happened once I saw that shovel, but at the time I was more focused on my fate than that of the potato salad. Using the ice shovel, I carefully scooped the salad back into the buckets, picking out foreign objects as I saw them; a task complicated by the presence of mayonnaise and celery seeds. In a couple of minutes the spilt containers were back on the truck and delivered to the kitchen. For the rest of the day, I worried that my transgression would be exposed, that a customer would complain about the taste or texture of the potato salad and this would lead back to me. But it never happened. The restaurant sold out of potato salad that day with nary a whisper from customers.
A half-century later, this experience still comes to mind from time to time as I visit factories or offices where problems are hidden to avoid retribution. While I continue to feel guilty for my part in the potato salad cover-up, I also rationalize that I would have behaved differently had management not created an environment that first made my transport task unreasonably difficult, and then had made it impossible for me report the problem and still keep my job.
Do you have any lessons learned from your early work life? Please share a story.