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Productivity Knowledge Base: Case Histories

Case #0002: Don't Allow Communication Breakdowns in Unusual Situations.

The project was several days behind schedule, and people were starting to worry. Phil's customer, located 300 miles away, was doing an equipment move within their city. The first crew had finished the  disconnection work two weeks earlier. Now, the new equipment was installed on the new site. But, job was stalled.

Essentially, the local union was fighting the job. Phil's company was a non-union shop. When this job went out for bid, non of the local firms had enough people available for the times specified. Phil's company did, and so got the job. It's work the union had been unable to do, anyhow.

But, the union saw it as job stealing. Their first action was to put pressure on the City Engineer to hold up the permit for the reconnection job. The thinking was that if they held up the job until the union had the people for it, they could do the job. Meanwhile, there was the factory with idled workers.

Phil sensed something was going on after the second oddball "requirement" came from the City Engineer. So, he persisted with drilling questions until the City Engineer said the problem was the union was putting pressure on him. Phil then arranged for a meeting with the Local's president.

At the meeting, Phil asked first for the union viewpoint. He expressed his sympathy, and then explained that the union was holding up a factory over 8 union electrician jobs. There were over 100 people out of work in the meantime. He asked, "Would you rather have us here to put 104 people back to work, or would you rather have us leave so that 8 people who already have work will have even more? And do you think this factory is going to consider future projects in this city, if you make this kind of trouble for them?"

The union president said, "I agree with you. For this one occasion, it makes more sense to outsource. But, once you are established in this city, you will start taking other work from us. We can't let you get a foothold."

Phil said, "I see your point. Let me talk to my home office. Can we meet for lunch in about an hour?"

An hour later, Phil had a proposal. His company would work with the union. Key points:

  • Electricians from Phil's shop would pay pro-rated union dues.
  • Every job Phil's firm got in the city would staff its electrical journeymen and helpers first from the local union and then from its own workforce.
  • On particularly large jobs within 200 miles, Phil's firm would offer slots to the local union when Phil's firm needed to hire beyond its normal core group of electricians.

This agreement would save Phil's firm a great deal of money on travel expenses, hiring considerations, skill training, safety training, and other costs. At the same time, the union would be protecting jobs.

They met with the customer and worked out a revised schedule. A union electrician would be on the job on Monday.

So far, so good....

The first two weeks weren't so good. The union did have an electrician available for the job, so he (Bill)  replaced someone originally slated from Phil's company. Nobody briefed this man on the arrangement. He showed up on a job filled with scab (nonunion) workers. Bill immediately saw it as job stealing and he did everything he could to undermine the job in subtle ways. For example, he moved very slowly, claimed things weren't being done right, and constantly put tools and materials away in the middle of work.

Pete, the site superintendent, also didn't get a good briefing. He started complaining to his crew about "that union slacker" and asking them to make the guy work harder. Whenever Phil called for a progress report, the site superintendent said, "We are doing fine." He meant his crew was working hard. He felt is was politically incorrect to complain about the union worker. But, then Phil started seeing the percent completes coming in behind schedule.

Phil had to go out of town on another project, so he sent his senior project engineer to the site to see what was going on and to handle the problem. He completely briefed Roger about the situation.

Roger arrived, thinking everyone else was also fully aware of the arrangement. He noticed the union guy walking very slowly, and asked him about it. The union man said, "You all are here to steal our jobs." Roger blinked. "How do you mean?" The union man found the question insulting, and told Roger to go away. Roger said, "Let's start from Square One. Can I have five minutes with you? That's five minutes where you won't have to work."

When Roger got done telling the union man about the arrangement, he said, "You didn't know about this?"

"No, man. I had no idea. And I'll bet ol' Pete has no idea, either." Bill whistled at Pete, and waved him over. After a few minutes, the rest of the crew noticed the three men were standing by themselves, laughing. Everyone stopped work and went to see what was going on.

After some explanation and some good-natured ribbing, Bill said, "Now that we have this straight, I know exactly how to make you boys wish you stayed at home. I'm going to shame you. I don't suppose anybody told you I won the conduit-bending and fabrication race three years out of the past five, did they?"

The job completed ahead of schedule.

Phil and Roger were in the office a few days after the job completed, and Phil said, "I never did ask you how you straightened out that union mess."

Roger stared at Phil for nearly a full minute. "Phil, there was no union mess. There was a management mess. You can't leave key people in the dark and expect them to understand an unusual situation. And that's what you did. That's why we had problems in those first two weeks. But I'll tell anyone who wants to know that once we fixed that management mess we had a crew that worked like a Swiss watch."

Disclaimer: In many cases, the names have been changed for various reasons. In no case are we publishing any case that sheds a negative light on any real person or company. Any negative comments related to the name of an actual person or company are purely coincidental.



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