One of my first jobs was assembling submersible electric motors. When I started the facility had only been open for a few weeks, paid a fair wage, and hired about anyone with a year’s worth of manufacturing experience. We may have been a ragtag crew but the trials of a new product and production line fostered a great comradery among us. We learned together and depend on one another. Being reliable for my team worked well for me. After learning a number of different stations, I advanced to the machining centers, and then made my way to the Quality Department.
In 2008, with the global credit crisis in full swing, the company downsized manufacturing from 120 to 40 people. My job was spared but it was a devastating experience for all involved. The Great Recession persisted, and in 2009 the company cut the last of the manufacturing jobs and transferred production offshore. I landed on my feet with a new job in quality but I hated that twice over I didn’t have any influence on the course of events, that had huge implications for myself and my colleagues.
With encouragement and a nudge from my wife, I knew it was time to go back to school. The goal was to be an engineer so that I would have the skills to understand complex systems and solve problems faced by organizations so that history would not repeat.
I continued my work as a quality technician and started coursework towards my degree in engineering. This was an extraordinarily challenging process. Even without the added challenges such as building a home, or blessing of a family, going to school while working full time is hard. The benefit though is that I could apply my learning, and I developed a real sense for priorities since time was in short supply.
After many grueling years I accomplished my goal. I got hired for an engineering job and soon after finishing my degree. I now had the tools to understand the world around me and the tools to produce and improve products and processes. Next, I applied my skills on interdisciplinary continuous improvement projects at a new company. Although successful, I found that my ability to drive improvement was limited by my lack of understanding in other functional areas. To be successful, I needed to adapt to understand the other parts of business such as Finance, HR, and Sales.
To fill my new found gaps, I pursue an MBA. I found the missing information but also found out something else. Unlike the equations of engineering the world was full of complex environments and uncertainty that do not respond to clean cut solutions. To be successful, I would have to make decisions faster in the absence of complete data. This flew in the face of the certainty that I was trained in, and that I demanded in the Quality function. If I could not reduce every problem to an equation or process I would not be able to fix all of the too big, too complex and ever changing problems on my own.
After working in Continuous Improvement for a time and traveling for my MBA courses, I returned home and to my roots in Manufacturing Quality engineering. I found a place that mirrored the world, too big, too complex, too dynamic to control everything myself. But that isn’t the point in life or work is it.
Now I work to enhance quality, while incorporating interdisciplinary process improvement, but I now recognize that it is sharing the knowledge and fostering motivation what really counts. I can’t control the next up or down turn of the economy or the next disruptive innovation but I can help make sure my direct reports, peers, and managers are prepared as possible to have a positive influence on tomorrow.