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Steve Adams: Past is Prologue

January 17, 2014
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For thousands of years purposeful storytelling has defined and refined mankind.  Elders by campfire imparted wisdom, ritual and tradition.  In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates a discussion involving his mentor Socrates regarding firelight, shadows, shapes, doubt and fear.  The philosopher’s role is defined as he who brings the light of day, a new dawn - a keeper of knowledge dispelling myth and bringing clarity.  It is argued that without Socrates there would be no Plato.     

I have been privileged to have three mentors in my manufacturing life the oldest of which was part of the greatest generation.  He was a Marine armorer machinist.  He and his ilk took part in the waging of war on a world-wide scale the likes of which will never be seen again.  Post war, he beat his sword into a plow sheer and specialized in mold-making.  Lucid and productive into his upper eighties, he was a savant and metal was his medium.  A widower and childless, I would visit with sub sandwiches and dark beer.  We collaborated on projects and discussed campaigns, weaponry, jigs, fixtures, complex set-ups and the vices and virtues of various pieces of machinery much of which is still in use.  I own a sweet Monarch war department lathe.  Everything was painted battleship gray.  It was like watching a news reel illuminated on the silver screen.

Later, I took a role as a change agent supervising more than 30 employees - assemblers, millwrights, electricians, machinists and printers.  It was a dark, foreboding place. The company was apprehensive about impending retirements, nothing had been done to prepare.  Inspired, I seized the initiative and set about interviewing - harvesting knowledge from the graying community.  I organized work groups in each discipline on each shift pairing elders with novices based on ability, personality and propensity to teach and learn.  Holding meetings for one hour twice a week, I shepherded the program and sustained gains, shifting and sharpening focus as necessary. 

The impact was deep - tips, tricks and pearls of wisdom were codified to become useful troubleshooting guides later incorporated into training curriculum.  Light was shed on numerous component flaws leading to engineering revisions, process modifications and improved preventive maintenance procedures.  Tinkering was suppressed.  Enlightenment engendered an esprit de corps.  A comprehensive understanding, critical in proper diagnosis and rapid return to service, was gained and an accumulated 160 years of wisdom preserved.  I have since repeated the program elsewhere.

As the greatest generation expires and the baby boomers retire - seize the moment.  Pay now or pay later.  Keep the knowledge, don’t give it back.  Establish mentorship programs or internal apprenticeships.  Recruit the bright - extract, filter, refine, and deploy or, D M A I C.  Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.  Ignite passion and foster camaraderie.  Understand humans instinctively heed and seek to emulate elders - use this to perpetuate the preceding generations’ work ethic and imbue professionalism.  Hone the message and delivery.  Develop character.  Allow a certain freedom of action to facilitator, instructor and instructed - tailor to fit culture.  Remember a person that feels valued adds value.     

Much is made of the current shortage of qualified labor.  The situation is serious but not hopeless as a confluence of circumstances work to our benefit.  Already, numerous initiatives and programs are underway to redress the employment balance.  Societal shifts are in motion as Maslow’s Hierarchy exerts additional pressure.  In the interim, prepare.  Preserve method and technique.  Strive to make a career in manufacturing desirable - create a buzz.  Draw recruits to the beacon as stewardship works to restore the mystique.  Establish cadres for future expansion, a resilient core, by training reports above grade.  Expose them to wider management concepts, strategy and tactics.  Leads can then step in as supervisors who in turn can assume manager duties when the labor and education cycle shift is complete.  Do not lament the loss of American manufacturing prowess help reinvigorate it. Till the fallow field, sow seeds of renewal, focus the light and reap the gain.            

Other societies venerate the elderly.  It is right we do the same.  When seniors retire don’t merely provide an extra break and a cake – Spot light their achievements. Remain in contact - keep relations warm and inviting.  Establish alumni groups.  Appreciate the retirees need for a sense of purpose and seek mutual benefit.  Provide the option of contract consulting and training, hold workshops. 

I am reminded of my fifth grade social studies teacher.  She explained that the Dark Ages were dark because the “light of learning went out”.  What a beautiful way to express the concept!  After the Middle Ages came a Renaissance – nadir to zenith, then an Age of Enlightenment.  Seasons, cycles, life.  Seek and become mentors, embrace the philosopher - welcome the dawn.  Past is Prologue.

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