Sunday, February 10, 2019

Pearl of Wisdom #1

We don’t reach our Third Third without accumulating some wisdom. One of my little bits of wisdom isn’t earth-shaking. It’s not high on the list of Great Values or Good Deeds or even How to Be a Better Person, but it does pop up again and again. So I’ll call it a Pearl of Wisdom. I’m sure you have them, too. Tell me about yours.

This one started at a summer job at Tramco Automatic Transmissions. Oh, there were so many things I learned there – sexism, unfair working conditions, boredom – but this is not about that. Our job at Tramco was to assemble transmission repair kits according to specifications printed out on a sheet. The women sat in one room and assembled the kits and got paid less. The men roamed the warehouse, filling the bins with the right parts, and got paid more. One other woman and I were rovers; we were given shopping carts to go out into the warehouse, find the right part in the bins, gather all the parts for an order, and bring it back to the women with the kits.

Sometimes, as I wandered the warehouse, I would come upon an empty bin for a part I needed to complete my order. I’d stare at it, wondering what to do, and one of the men would say, “Oh, check with Maria. She has a private stash of J2Z89 gaskets.”

So I’d go over to Maria, who had some sort of domain in a corner of the warehouse, and I’d ask for a J2Z89 gasket. Marie had five, but she was unwilling to part with one. I’d cajole her, somewhat confused: “How am I going to fill the order without one?” Eventually, after telling me about her grandchildren and how they were doing, she’d relent, and I’d walk off satisfied.

Until I needed a 2KL47 ring, and that bin was empty, too. “Check with George. He has a private stash.” George, too, had his little corner, filled with his own little boxes and tubes and containers.

“Hi, George, can I have a 2KL47 ring?”

“But what if I need it?”

“Do you need it?”

“I might.”

So I’d chat him up a little, beg a little, finally get my 2KL47 ring. But I had to do all this wheedling and convincing and persuading just to do my job. And this happened over and over again. The solution just seemed so obvious, so I made an announcement:

“Everyone, if we all gave up our little private stashes and put everything into the bins, we could do an inventory and see what we really have and what’s really missing.”

You would have thought I’d planted a bomb. “That’s not how we do it.” “Crazy college girl thinks she knows how to run the place.” “What a stupid idea.” “If we gave up our stashes, they wouldn’t need us.” (We wouldn’t be indispensable.)

Aha! That’s my pearl of wisdom, but it didn’t register until I worked for an organization much later on. Now I wasn’t dealing with gaskets and rings; I was dealing with information and skills. For example:

“How many employees have been reassigned in the last year?”

“Which employee are you interested in?”

“No, not one, any of them. I’m looking for a pattern.”

“Give me a name, and I’ll tell you.”

“No, I need the whole list.”

“I’m the one who keeps the list.”

That’s The Guy Who Keeps the List. Or maybe it’s The Woman Who Operates the Machine. Or The Person Who Knows the Number. Do you know them too?

It’s about private stashes of information or skills or knowledge … and the resistance to sharing. Yes, there are some reasons for dividing labor, but when the Common Purpose requires sharing, private stashes get in the way. When someone holds on to being indispensable, organizations flounder. Any organization. Any group.

I was 18 when I worked at Tramco Automatic Transmissions, and the guys in the warehouse seemed to smell me out as I wheeled my shopping cart around. Somebody decided that was inappropriate, but I was the one fired. The guys felt bad and got together to find me another job … as a topless dancer. Which so freaked me out that I ran from them on my last day of work.

There were a lot of lessons learned on that job, but the little bit of wisdom that lingered had everything to do with sharing … or refusing to.

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