By Ed Sawicki

Rotating gears

In the mid-1970s, when I was working for Tektronix in New York, a man named Bill Weiman was hired as an electronics technician. For a time, he and I worked in the same department, repairing Tek oscilloscopes and other products. I later learned that Bill was a nephew of a woman who was a family friend of my parents. Bill was smart and we got along well. We were equally matched in terms of skills in troubleshooting analog circuitry. I had the edge on him in the digital domain but he was not far behind.

One day, when Bill wasn't feeling well but not bad enough to go home sick, we decided to split the workload. I would do the troubleshooting and Bill would make the repair by changing the bad component, which often required a soldering iron—and didn't take as much thinking. While Bill was making the repair, I'd troubleshoot the next item. If one of us fell behind on our job, the other would help out or revert back to doing repairs the normal way until the backlog was cleared. We'd alternate roles on subsequent days.

Since each item to be serviced had a tag and paperwork attached and we had to mark down our labor time–and our managers evaluated us on that time–we had to be sure to evenly split our time on the paperwork, which was a nuisance. At some point, we discovered that both of us had significant improvement in our productivity. Our team approach was yielding productivity better than each of us normally achieved individually.

At first, our manager was suspicious about the numbers and spent a few hours checking. When he realized the productivity increase was real, he was pleased. I half-joked that we'd save time if we sign-off the paperwork with "BillEd" and have the service desk split the time allocation for each of us. Our manager didn't like that idea for reasons other than possibly confusing the bookkeper with "Billed". I remember him asking, “What would happen if everyone did this? It would be tough doing performance reviews. How would I know which technicians deserved the better raises?”

I replied with, “Why would you care when productivity is improved? Give both people a good review.” He wasn't buying that. He had a payroll to watch over and increased revenue from higher productivity wasn't a factor for him to consider.

Another unforeseen problem developed. Other technicians in the service center didn't like our team approach. Two of them had tried it but it didn't work out for them. They thought that we were showing them up. They took their resentment out on Bill and his car. One day, Bill found that his car was stuffed with packing materials. On another day, several of them had lifted his Volkswagen and carried it to a grassy field next to the parking lot. It took him a while to find it.

They didn't pick on me because I would go out to drink with them and usually did better with the girls at the local watering hole than some of them. I asked them to stop picking on Bill. They stopped.

The manager eventually decided that the increased productivity was not worth the personnel problems he was having. He told us to stop our team approach and go back to doing our own work. I remember responding by mimicking someone scolding Henry Ford for his production line. The manager didn't appreciated that but I didn't care. I had other prospects.

Anyone who thinks stupid decisions are only made by government and inefficiency is the exclusive domain of the public sector has been brainwashed.