Back in 1987, I was Navy man. Sort of.
Actually, I worked for a Navy contractor. Job site: the old Naval Air Development Center (changing its name in the ‘90s to Naval Air Warfare Center) in Warminster, Pennsylvania.
Every once in a while I had to walk from the contractor offices nearby to the airbase and help with documentation on one plan or another. I would walk into my colleague, Gene’s (not his real name) office in the steel warehouse, where the very air was austere and spartan. Gene was part of cleric support staff for the Center engineers.
Those were the good old defense industry days of yore, brought about by Reaganomics (now since denounced by the Pope), where Military Might was followed by big checks to lots of bottom-feeding contractors -- the days of Wine, Roses, and Requests for Proposals (RFPs).
Gene had a soul of gold, one of the most sincere and nicest people I have met. But work efficiency was a monumental struggle for the poor guy. How Gene got anything done – and I mean, ANYTHING – remains a mystery.
You know Monk, the detective on TV? Monk has to sharpen and arrange his pencils 10-fold; has to pull open his desk drawers and close them, so many times, just PRECISELY; has to place his chair underneath his desk, you know, just so PRECISELY so far away from chair back to drawer lip; has to maintain a routine so rigid you would swear he wrote the book on tightening the covers on your Marine bunk.
No bunk about Gene, though. One day I waited 10 minutes for him to withdraw a file. Kid you not.
I thought back one day several years later when I worked for a time in public relations for Lukens Steel, since destroyed by its tender-offer takeover by Bethlehem Steel, also out of business. Blame the North American Free Trade Agreement, all part of the Reagonomics smoking pipe that no one, at least those remaining alive and conscious, would ever believe could help the working man.
My co-worker, a Lukens steel technician, was explaining to me the concept of Toyota Lean. Coming from the same people who cost-assessed whether they should actually try to ensure the gas pedal wouldn’t stick, and thinking, well, you win some, you lose some litigation. As long as we stay on the side of profitability, so what if some cars go out of control and careen into a crowd?
The Toyota Lean Concept is this: save production costs by ensuring that one person does the work of 20.
How can any company take that “blanket” approach? On a good day, with God’s good graces and a whole lot of luck, I told him, some people I know could barely do the work of two people. Barely.
Now Gene would never be cut out for Toyota Lean (or Toyota Mean). To him, Toyota Mean or Lean or what have you would be the equivalent of getting an ant to play basketball on a full court. With a regulation ball.
Fast forward to the Gulf Oil Disaster.
When you want to cut costs and trim down staffs, quality is going to escape you like fog in the sun. The guys doing the work of 20 people each are just trying to make it. They get distracted; they are tired, prone to easy mistakes; one thing leads to another; and if the rig has Gene-like people with Gene-like days on them (every rig does), well, trouble stares at you.
When are we going to learn to treat workers with respect in every category, from wages to downtime, and worry less about the profit margin? After all, BP has billions of dollars and they could climb to the top with employee respectability. If this was in place, a disaster contingency plan is going to be second nature. They’ll want to protect BP and vice versa.
Gene had a great heart and wanted to obtain that file from the folder and did it well. Slower, but well. Maybe “well” is all that matters.