Mill Story #32: I Think You Lost Them
For those who need certainty, the greatest invention of the computer age was the spreadsheet. The endless rows and columns of neat numbers; the absoluteness of the mathematical calculations; the superiority that comes with being the master of the information; all feeds the soul of those who need a world of unassailable truth.
Then there are those who understand and have the flexibility to deal with the chaotic reality of our world. The twists and turns of human nature; the speed at which one truth is replaced with another; the fact that there are many ways to reach a solution. On one morning in 1989 these two types of personalities came together with comical results.
In 1989 Bethlehem Steel and the United Steelworkers had begun to negotiate the “master” agreement that would replace the existing labor agreement that covered most of its far flung facilities. Already in serious financial decline, the Company was proposing a “carve out” for several plants that were considered too “troubled” to absorb the costs of the “master” agreement. Steelton was one of those facilities. We had expected difficult negotiations, but were not prepared to be separated from our sister plants and potentially end up in a permanently sub-standard wage, benefit and work quality position.
The International Union gave us a brief explanation of the Company’s approach and urged us to listen to a detailed presentation that our Plant Manager had put together. To make sure that our Local Union officers understood the situation clearly, we hastily called for six Executive Board members to immediately come to Pittsburgh, from Steelton for a 9am presentation. The six left Steelton at 4am and arrived in time for a quick briefing and the start of the Plant Managers presentation.
The Plant Manager, steeped in the wonders of an Excel Spreadsheet, had assembled an extensive “stack” of slides and graphs that detailed the Plant’s financial condition and he was certain would convince us to agree with his conclusions. Conclusions that would have the workforce make up the entire Plant deficit with concessions out of our pay and contract provisions.
So began a marathon session of one computer projected spreadsheet after another. So enthralled was the Manager with his handiwork that before long he began talking to the screen (and the numbers) with his back to his audience. The Union side of his audience was not nearly as taken by the numbers or the conclusion. We lived in a world where human beings created the numbers and human beings could change the outcomes. The Plant Manager needed to convince us that his plan was the best, but instead was trying to show us his numbers were the only way to interpret and solve our problems.
Tired and underwhelmed by the monotony; put off by a the Plant Manager who was having a conversation with the screen; and determined not to finance the ineptitudes of management’s stewardship of our Plant, the audience and the presenter quickly fell out of sync. One by one, they lost interest and succumbed to sleep. Eventually all six were heads down, eye’s closed, and getting the rest their unexpected trip had robbed them of. This went unnoticed by the Plant Manager. But no one wanted to interrupt the presentation. Finally, one of the six began to snore. The Plant Manager turned around to face six out of eight of his intended audience soundly asleep. The disbelief, anger and hurt came across the Plant Managers face before he could hide the emotions. The Plant Human Resource Manager, trying to diffuse the coming storm, said, “I think you’ve lost them”. And so he had, in many more ways than one. In Mill Story #29, I detail the alternative we worked out to the Plant Manager’s plan. But on that day, the gulf between one man’s blind belief in numbers and another group who had a healthy disrespect for math driven solutions was captured in a precious moment. A moment that underscores so many difficulties in the effort to coordinate management and those who actually produce.
copyright 2013 – Ike Gittlen