First Job Lessons

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.


3 thoughts on “First Job Lessons

  1. Mike Bell (@ppimike)

    My early work experiences were a whole lot better than your great story about the potato salad. One of my first jobs was as a grave digger. This was where I really learned what teamwork was and how important it was to look after each other. As a school kid, I worked over the summer in the north of Scotland for the municipal council and I was assigned to the graveyard team. Despite being a somewhat morbid occupation, it was great fun; hard work certainly, but great fun as well. We did not know any of the people we were digging graves for, so managed to stay emotionally distant.
    Anyway, the key factor in building a great teamwork was sand. The soil was so sandy, being close to the beach, that it had no strength and could collapse in at any time. When that horrible cave in happened, we were trained to jump as high as possible and stick one arm in the air. At that moment, you were at the mercy of your teammates – they had to dig down furiously until they uncovered your up stretched arm and were able to dig and pull you out. And some graves were 8 or 9 feet deep.You knew that the dreaded cave in could happen to you (despite all the boards and shoring that we used) and then you had to rely on the others.
    To this day, I think back to my time as a grave digger whenever I see teams in action. Do they really look out for each other? Do they really care what happens to the others? Health and safety has probably outlawed that method of digging graves a long time ago, but it helped me learn how to trust my teammates. And that is so important in making continuous improvement work.

  2. Tom Warda


    You asked for some stories, so here is mine. My first job with a real paycheck was working for a retail chain that sold and installed automotive parts like tire, batteries, etc. I worked at the smallest of several stores they had in my home town. We had a little two bay service department with fairly rudimentary equipment. (Translation: Everything was manual.) We ran this area with no more than two people at a time.

    Although one might think we would have been pretty slow, oddly enough, just the opposite was true. In fact we were noted as having the fastest turn-around times of any store in the region. How did we do that? Well, we looked at things a little differently than everybody else. (Sound familiar?) In all of the other stores, your car was driven into a bay and one technician would do 100% of the work. So if you were getting four tires, he would put the car up in the air, remove all four wheels, dismount and mount the new tires (all 4), balance all four, then re-install them on the car. You may have noticed a little batching going on there.

    Our routine was different. Instead of batching by car, we went to where the work was. (Pull?) Since our primitive equipment only allowed us to lift one end of the car at a time, we could only do 2 tires at a time. (Half the batch size.) So while one guy was pulling the front tires, the other guy was removing the rear wheel covers and / or getting the new tires from the stockroom. The next available guy would dismount 1 old tire and mount 1 new one – then move to the balancer. (Single piece flow.) Meanwhile, the second guy would dismount and mount the second tire. The first guy then moved to mounting the first wheel back on the car. This ballet dance (as one customer called it) would continue until one car was done. If we had both bays full, it got even more interesting, but flowed just as well. In short, we moved the people to where the work (value added) was. Turns out we were way ahead of our time.

    Oddly enough, this kind of performance led to some management attention. They wanted to know how we did it with such primitive equipment. They came. They observed. They timed. They concluded that we could go even faster with a new lift that actually got the whole car off the ground and threw in a new automated tire changer. The result? The new lift kind of forced us to up our batch size to 4. And the shorter cycle times of the new equipment really threw us for a loop. In short, we didn’t actually get any quicker. (Sound familiar?)



Leave a Reply