You have arrived

May 24th, 2008

The original plan was for me to fly out of state to my boss’ headquarters and spend as much time as I needed learning the ins and outs of how his home-based department operated so that I can work in tandem with them in my remote location. One of the key items on the agenda was for me to show the team some of the things I was doing in Access to get more and better data.

About the same time our plant financial manager declared that the site he used to work at did not have the same difficulty with the shipping software that we were having, and someone should go see why. The shipping manager nominated me. My boss said that site was not far from his location so I could go ahead and include it in my trip.

It turned out that the Access expert of the main group would be on long-overdue vacation while I was in the area. I thought I could probably get what I needed from spending half a day in the factory the financial manager came from, a day with my boss’ team, and half a day in the central warehouse nearby. But my boss’ team leader, G.J., suggested I needed at least four days, so I left Tuesday morning.

The idea that the exemplary factory is “close” to the headquarters is indisputable when contemplating the interstate miles I had to fly in any case, but as it was over two hours of driving and travelling by air is only efficiently fast while actually in the air, it took me nearly the entire day of Tuesday to get to my first destination. Upon arriving I found my boss and several people I have worked with remotely all engaged in a project at the factory that I was conscripted into without preamble.

Since I was asked by my boss to stay involved for the entire day of Wednesday, the original plan of driving up to the management headquarters mid-Wednesday went out the window. So I began the trip of three hours or so at about 7 pm, having awoken at 5 am and not slept well the night before (due to general excitement; the hotel was blameless). I was making this trip utterly dependent on the navigational computer in the rental car and the address of the hotel printed on my itinerary. This navigational computer had not been able to properly locate the factory I went to first, but it got me within site of the place and I had a phone call on the way that gave me all the further help I needed.

Well, you have probably already guessed that my reliance on the navigator betrayed me. I pulled off an exit, drove past a cluster of hotels and shops, and continued on into abruptly empty countryside. I drove through an intersection that was marked off on one side, “Road Closed, Bridge Out.” And then, in the middle of nowhere, the navigator cheerfully announced, “You have arrived at your destination.”

That’s when I realized I forgot to bring a tent.

Now what shall I do? Everyone I might call is in bed. I could put an address into the navigator, but the only address anywhere in the reasonably near vicinity I had any interest in reaching was the hotel, and that hadn’t turned out too well.

I figured it was a quirk of the navigator and I had passed my hotel earlier, so I turned around and headed back. I thought I knew how to retrace my steps (although the navigator did not provide me with this option, at least as far as I know). But when I thought I needed to go straight through an intersection I saw the orange signs glowing at me saying “Bridge Out” and “Road Closed.”

Well, crap. I must have remembered wrong. I turned off the other way and drove on a bit, hoping I would suddenly realize my earlier mistake. But no. It looked worse and worse. I stopped again, panned the navigator around until I got an idea of where the highway was, and headed back. But the navigator showed only a small bit of map at a time and turned when I turned, making it hard for me to follow my own ad-hoc directions. Again, the orange signs, and no clear alternate route.

After wandering back and forth through the area a bit I finally realized that the signs I was seeing were slightly off to the side of where I need to proceed “straight” through the intersection. In other words, my initial sense of direction was okay, it was my night vision that was misleading.

I had discovered, when reviewing my itinerary, that the name of my hotel was not shown. It had an illegible logo and an address, but no name. This presented a great consternation because I had hoped the navigator would more accurately identify the hotel by its name than by its street address, but I could not even attempt it.

Finally I arrived at the hotel I had passed when getting off of the highway. I went in and said, “I am really not sure I am in the right hotel, but do you have a reservation for me?”

The answer was no. So I asked if they could help me figure out which hotel I did have a reservation for. Fortunately the attendant was willing to help–although actually the phone number was printed on my itinerary, though I had not noticed it in my urgency–and called, got directions, and sent me on my way.

Of course after the long day and disorienting experiences I was no longer sure I was following my new directions even when I was, but fortunately the hotel was clearly visible as I took the exit and when I went into this hotel and asked if there were reservations in my name the answer was yes. If there hadn’t been I might have asked for any vacancy anyway, to heck with the itinerary; I could not take much more wandering around in the night.

Normally I have been avoiding clear identifiers on this site, but for anyone who may be risking a similar commitment I will inform you that I was using the Hertz Neverlost on a Magellan navigator. I have heard of similar misdirections from a Garmin system as well. So my advice, for those who are considering a navigator: don’t rely on it. It can be helpful, but it is not reliable, and you should have a more proven back-up option available to you. Also, do plan to take the time to review the system, because they (or at least mine) are not quite intuitive enough to just jump in and start driving without mistaking the directions given a few times.

There’s an interesting metaphor in the whole experience, if I am not simply gratifying myself making it up. The main purpose of my trip was to complete my training for my new role in Acme at our site. The main attraction, for me, was the sense of importance and connectedness I get in unreasonable amounts from making long trips to work with people. In that vein, it only inflated my ego that I was diverted from my original purpose in the financial manager’s star site to participate in a project for my boss. I was treated in some measure as an expert, out of proportion with my actual knowledge or effectiveness, I fear, but all the same quite titillating. So there was a certain sense in this trip that I had arrived as a notable figure and a resource across sites within Acme, two years from being temp with no background in anything related to Acme or its business processes except some trifling experience with Access.

But all that takes a hollow tone in light of the conversation I had with my boss shortly before leaving on Friday. I am now to set aside the definition of my role that has just been fully delivered and give my utmost attention to supporting the local plant, because it stands in real danger due to poor performance. Should things come to the point where my services are no longer needed in this plant, I do not see where Acme can make me an offer I would accept, due to my geographic preferences–even if they chose to make an offer, as I flatter myself there’s a good chance they would.

Yes, it is rather like arriving at nowhere.

This latest job realignment is the most predictable thing that has happened in my short career, all prior changes coming to me from hitherto unguessed sources, so I don’t take the boundaries of my perceived probabilities as any fair judge of the future.

Close call

May 17th, 2008

One of the overlaps between my old job duties and my new duties is monitoring an effort to improve our service to a key customer. As with a similar initiative about a year ago, I am frustrated with merely noting the problems we are having. I don’t think using extraordinary focus to compensate for systemic issues qualifies as a solution, and I don’t think making note of problems qualifies as fixing them. Without any administrative authority, there is nothing else I can do except try to improve the detail of my information and hone it to suggest solutions to those who do have authority.

The difficulty in obtaining detailed information comes from lack of time and access. The most revealing information is not available by simply querying the factory database (which I am good at). The real story occurs outside the awkward confines of the inappropriate computer system, and requires communicating with actors in other departments. The people in positions to actively manage these problems don’t provide any information helpful in understanding the cause of these problem by way of e-mail; by habit, or convenience, they will only give brief information on when the problem will be overcome (or worked around), not what caused it and what might cure it permanently.

When my new manager and his assistant for strategic accounts were planning to come up to our factory in the first full week of May, I began scheduling meetings with all these key players so that the locals were fully aware of the urgency and so my manager knew the personalities and difficulties I faced. All that went out the window when high-level corporate management decided to visit the factory in the same week. But just before that announcement came through, I got a brusque dismissal from the purchasing manager who could not understand why I wanted to bother him with yet another meeting.

Initially he declined my electronic invitation with a note asking what on earth I wanted. I went to see him in person and was told he was too busy for a meeting and that my manager’s assistant (i.e. someone more important than me) should just phone him. His terseness was not going over well with me and I was trying to choose my words carefully so as not to simply back-talk with something inflammatory and escalating, but in the end I walked out. I sent him a long e-mail to explain thoroughly and, I hoped, clearly why it was important that he meet, as this very important customer has gotten quite impatient and is asking very pressing questions, for which I must supply answers on behalf of our site.

That confrontation was completely sidelined with the visit of the corporate brass. After my new boss had explained my job to me during that week, I realized that I would need to give more time to following through on the questions I had for different departments, and I could not afford to indulge other people’s impatience or busyness if I were to do my job well. Late in this week I found I could put off talking to the purchasing manager no longer, and sent him another invitation, stating that if he could not meet at the indicated time to please suggest another time.

He sent it back refused without comment.

Now I had the choice of going to see him in person, again, and likely have him more riled up than the first time, or simply turning the matter over to my manager who outranks him. I did not want to run off tattling that Johnny doesn’t play nice if I could get through the problem myself, but I also very much doubted that I was going to get anywhere on my own. I also wanted to leave a little time for any follow-up messages from the purchasing manager that would suggest a new meeting time.

While weighing my options, the assistant for special accounts called me to get his daily update and I asked his opinion. He said to elevate it; take it to my supervisor and ask his advice. That fit with my general inclination and I was prepared to do it as soon as I got off the phone.

Before I finished discussing other matters with the assistant, though, the purchasing manager showed up at my desk. I was preparing myself for another tirade as I got off the phone, but instead my questions were answered thoroughly and without snarky remarks. I still detected impatience, but not liking something you must do is no crime if you nevertheless do it.

So I was spared needlessly aggravating a strained relationship. As soon as I try to start pushing the boundaries my job seems to become a series of well-meaning missteps, and this one, at least, was prevented. It was an appreciated blessing.

When the boss comes to visit

May 10th, 2008

Some of my despair in anticipation of this past week proved unfounded. I had adequate time to talk with my new boss and get a clear understanding of what he expects from me. Various anecdotes from the four days he was in the plant also suggest that he has the influence and inclination to support me in the work he wants me to do, politically and materially. This should not be taken as settled fact until demonstrated, but the early indications are good. And a few of my key concerns were happily met, such as moving out of my current work area so I don’t cover functions of my old role by default.

I won’t be moving until I catch up on the backlog of claims. My boss said, and I agree, that the responsibility for the claims should not be passed off with as a big mess. But this presents a challenge since I have to get up to speed in my new role, which will include a trip near the end of the month. I will probably put in a lot of overtime.

My new role is to monitor the sales orders and report on all kinds of problems, including the number and age of past-due orders. Reducing the number of past due orders is my responsibility. Except I can’t actually do anything about it. As my boss said, neither he nor I have any authority over anybody (aside from his authority over me and his team); all we can do is present information on the problems and hope that the people in charge of the actual work take the cue to make the actual improvements. When I asked what would measure my job performance that I could actually control, my boss again said there wasn’t any good way to measure it and he himself was also in the same boat.

So I still have a job that wouldn’t exist if other people were doing their jobs, and my job is still fundamentally to point out how other people are not doing their jobs or could be doing it better. This is my third post-college job and every position so far has had this aspect of intangibility. Clearly I am being groomed for an out-of-touch management position.

Meanwhile, the Mean Scary Guy was back in town, the plant manager’s boss’ boss. He made it quite clear that our branch of Acme is not performing satisfactorily. Everyone is thoroughly scared, but I don’t think anyone actually understands what ought to be done. There is a chance, then, that whatever I present or suggest will be seized upon as a chance for redemption, but it is really more likely that anything I offer will be ignored because everyone is already trying to save themselves using whatever they regard as the best means.

Of course, as Mean Scary Guy put it, whatever they are currently doing is wrong because it isn’t working. But this is not sufficient to teach them what they ought to do. I think they will approach the same problems the same way, and just try harder and point fingers more desperately. I think you would need to change the composition of the management before you expect the method of execution to change.

Please note that "silver" refers to the color of the lining, and the actual material may be some other metal or metallic-appearing substance

May 3rd, 2008

I spent a considerable portion of the week angry, and in fact woke up angry Monday morning after dreaming about workplace injustices. I don’t care to revisit the details, but, like Western pioneers marking bad water, I will give a brief notice on these ill fortunes. Perhaps when some history has accumulated around these events there will be something useful to learn from them.

Since I found out that I have a new job I have been waiting to be taught what it is. At last I heard when my new boss would arrive to explain my new job: next week, present Monday afternoon and Tuesday. This was the gleaming light in the distance signalling a change of routine, a relief from boredom and an escape from the some of the daggers of role uncertainty being thrown my way. Positioned as I am within a department with inadequate (and recently reduced) manpower, I play a part in many roles but none with excellence, and so I am liable for criticism on whatever part of my job the critic things I should have done completely.

The inadequacies of this situation have been building up over time, especially since I stopped trying to cover the gaps with liberal overtime months ago. In recent weeks it has become more acute and I have been weathering the storm by telling myself a measure of clarity will be brought when my boss arrives and tells those various critics just how far my responsibilities extend. During this last week the attacks have gotten worse, more directly against my ally P.B. than against myself. But I have been hoping for a double advantage from my new role; one, in concentrating my duties to allow me to point to the actual source of the problems (which is not P.B.), and two, in cutting away some of the duties I have been partly fulfilling, prompt the hiring of a replacement that would relieve some of the strain on P.B.’s department.

I spent about four hours of overtime one night lining up meetings and preparing presentations to set the stage for my boss’ visit, planning to get him thoroughly acquainted with the personalties inclined to redefine my job and resist my execution of assigned duties. One of the key meetings on this agenda was with the plant manager, and I hoped that he and my new boss could reach a solid understanding of my role that would not be shaken by the blustering of lesser players. But I found out on Friday that the whole visit had been sidelined by visits in the same week by much higher-ranking personalities to discuss much more momentous subjects. Most of the people on the schedule of meetings would be preoccupied with these dignitaries and their strategy sessions, including my own boss; rather than being a principle focus of these two days, the question of my responsibilities is now a trifling matter to be taken care of in free time, as it is found. Undoubtedly many of the people in the factory who are most likely to cause me trouble will be unable to find any time at all to have their hands tied by some visiting manager whose importance is vastly overshadowed by the other royalty they could be courting.

So now instead of anticipating a few days to hammer out the finer details of my job, I am looking forward to a hectic week in which I receive more instructions that are not clearly defined in priority, and no clear obsolescence of existing duties; and when the week is over dealing with the same cast of characters who have their own notions of what I ought to do safely intact, so that I will spend half my energy convincing people that I have the right and responsibility to ask and to attempt what I do.

Incidentally, the big meeting is to discuss a mammoth backward step that some unenlightened potentate of the sales force has proposed to our order fulfillment strategy. So that’s the uranium lining to that dark cloud.