On the Mystery of Slow Michigan Maintenance Trucks

Most mornings I am on the verge of being delayed. Often, the worry about my abundance of work or missing a first morning meeting starts when I am driving in. I am coming to campus from the North-East, where many maintenance vehicles spend the night. And, many mornings, I have the same experience: I sit in my car and a University of Michigan support or maintenance vehicle drives in front of me – at 10 miles below the speed limit. There is a substantial chance that they actually go the same way I want to go, and I am stuck behind the UM truck or SUV wondering why it drives so slowly.

I have one big worry that I have not been able to confirm. The drivers are moving at a slow speed because they are not looking forward to their day’s work. Besides being out of work, this is pretty much the worst case for every employee. We all spend more than a third of each day at work. How would anybody want to spend that time doing a job they have absolutely no passion for?

The mystery of slow maintenance trucks therefore brings up one of the most relevant questions for each entrepreneur. How do we motivate our employees, and especially our support personnel, who are often many layers removed from the overall mission of our organization? Fortunately, I have some experiences to address this question that I learned while working at the bottom of the career ladder.

I grew up in a poor family and worked a job every summer because it was my only way to get what other kids got just by asking their parents: a bicycle, a hand-held calculator, or a computer. I worked the moment people would let me – sometimes for money, or sometimes for a snack in the afternoon. As soon as it was legal for me to officially get paid, I got jobs that I could get, often pretty rough jobs for relatively meager pay.

The three memorable jobs I ever had taught me about the motivation and value of hard work. Each of the jobs taught me a key lesson that has stayed with me.

Job #1 was in a yogurt factory. It was one of my first jobs away from home. I worked every day from 4a.m. till noon. I really struggled with the job – I had a tough time. I just was not fast enough to keep up with the machine. So, the newly made strawberry yogurt would come down the conveyor band and all I really had to do was to put them in an empty box. Easy enough, it seemed. Well, I did fine until one of two things happened. Either my stack of empty boxes was all gone and I needed to quickly walk across the factory floor to get another stack, or I made a mistake – mishandled a yogurt cup or something. And the strawberry yogurts kept coming down the belt, like the lava from a volcano – totally unstoppable. Within seconds, the problems escalated. The yogurts seemed to speed up and I made more and more mistakes. Sometimes, I even dropped a yogurt and the mess propagated. That is, until my friends showed up. They quickly left their position, laughed at me, and within one minute I was back out of trouble. I felt bad for not being able to catch up, but they really did not mind. They considered me part of their team and they were not going to fail. This lesson of teamwork and being successful as a team stuck with me. By the way, something else stuck with me: I have not eaten any strawberry yogurt since (I always think of the miserable feeling of helplessness as they came down the belt.)

Job #2 was in construction. Again, the job seemed simple. All I had to do is stand on a ladder and nail wooden sheets to a wall to make barns. It looked easy when by buddies did it: set nail – strike 1 – strike 2 – done. If felt beautiful, like a waltz, all day. Here is what I did: set nail – drop it from the ladder. Set nail 2 – set it – strike 1 – tab on nail from the side to straighten it back – strike 2, onto the wood, making a dent – strike 3 – tab on nail again – strike 4, 5, 6 to get the nail in – look around to be sure that nobody saw it. Well, clearly they did notice. They were nice enough, but on day 2, I was on top of the ladder, nailing right under the roof so nobody could ever possibly see the mess I created: bent nails, beat wood, nails that missed the plank. It took me days and weeks to nail things cleanly, consistently and beautifully. But the lesson I really learned from this job is how tough it is to do any work well – whether it is building a satellite instrument or nailing down nails, a job well done needs practice and patience.

The experience from Job #3 was the toughest lesson relative to work of my teenage years. I worked in a mill and did all kinds of extraneous tasks. The boss was a highly religious guy I only know from Sundays when he gave great speeches in church. My job consisted mostly in dealing with empty bags for flour and food for animals. This was one of the dirtiest jobs I ever had. I was coughing up black dust each evening. The challenge of the job had nothing to do with the work, but everything with the boss. When I started work, we had agreed upon a salary based on part-time work I had done for him before. I worked hard the entire month and at the end of the week I received my pay – only half the money he had promised. This was my only income all year and I felt like he knifed me in the belly. I was speechless and near tears. How could he do this?

This was the toughest lesson I ever had to learn. Your job will turn to hell if you have an unethical boss. It does not matter how loud the guy sings in church– a jerk is a jerk. Stay away from jerks whether they pray or whether they swear. People often think of values only in the context of a political pitch for office. My boss taught me to think of values, saying the truth, compassion for others, and friendship not just as nice things to do, but as a core career move. In the end, people will be successful who can be trusted, and the others fade away towards irrelevance or into jail.

So, how do we motivate our teams? We support them through friendship in a team even though they are not perfect. We teach them the value of great work and have the patience for them to learn it. We hardly ever achieve excellence – but we will always strive towards it. And finally, we will create an environment in which we stand for trust, ethical behavior and the kind of consistence that makes people want to work there. Let’s never, ever, ever compromise on that!

So, why are the Michigan maintenance vehicles so slow? I suspect it’s because one of these core-values is not maintained. Perhaps some of them don’t feel like they get the respect they deserve, especially the ones that work hard and push themselves towards excellence. I have met many such workers on campus. It is impossible to analyze this issue without really learning about it and getting to know the people.

But, I recommend to every future employer or entrepreneur to walk in the shoes of your employees. The world looks different when you look at it from the point of view of the guy who takes the orders and has nowhere to pass them on to. Once you do that, it is very difficult to think of the world with a strong vertical ordering. You recognize that the only way you will ever be successful if you get your people to pull with you and get all of them to be successful as well.

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