Several years ago, a group called the Maintenance Excellence Roundtable met on the West Coast to present what it had accomplished during the previous year and where it was headed for the coming year. We were privileged to have Robert Williamson in attendance, and he told us a story that stuck with me, as this was the time of “empowerment of the workforce.” It is called the “White Glove Story.” I have added a bit to it to give you a mental picture of some of the action. When Williamson tells it in person, he does likewise, although the story comes from the real-life experience of one of the characters.

A manufacturing plant had several lines manufacturing the same products. Each had an operator, and several were supported by the same maintenance technician. The operator’s responsibilities were to operate the machine, and the maintenance tech was to perform maintenance, even some of what we would call adjustments.

The operator on Line 3 was Mike, and the tech was Pat. Mike ran the machines, and when Pat was not doing equipment maintenance, he worked on several bench projects. Pat was frustrated that he was not able to perform minor maintenance work, which he knew he could accomplish, and Mike was always behind on his bench projects. Mike put in overtime and was tired of missing his son’s afterschool activities.

Quality of the final product required all operators to wear white gloves. When the techs touched the product, they also donned gloves. One day, Mike was watching Pat perform a corrective task and asked Pat if he could train him to perform those tasks, which they both agreed he was capable of doing. One thing led to another, and line production went up. Pat worked less overtime and did not have to climb the 25 steps to Mike’s work area more than once or twice a day.

At a staff meeting, the plant manager, Mark, queried the operations superintendent, Don, about the increased production on Line 3. He was also disturbed about some smudges found upon final inspection. Don did not have an answer. Mark pounded on the table, “We run this plant, and I expect you to explain major fluctuations in performance.” They agreed that the industrial engineer (IE) would study the situation and report back.

The IE quietly observed the Line 3 operator from a distance and discovered the Pat and Mike show. His report to the plant staff meeting was that “We have collusion between the operator and the tech, where the operator is performing maintenance and the tech is spending more time on bench projects.”

“Damn the maintenance make-work bench projects. Maintenance fixes machines and operators operate,” exclaimed Mark as he pounded the table. “Does everyone understand that? The inmates do not run the asylum? Don’t fix it.”

Don put things back in order. Production dropped to below the other lines, Pat took unscheduled absences (fishing season started), and Mark got behind on his bench projects and began refusing overtime. However, Pat and Mike were not to be deterred. They decided that Mike should have two sets of gloves and switch when he did “maintenance work,” then back to the other pair for “operations work.” Production went up, but they controlled it to appear that they were just motivated to do superior work.

All went well until the stockroom sent finance a requisition for gloves. The buyer commented to the director about the unusual usage. He brought it up at a staff meeting. Mark stated, “We have more important things to discuss than gloves; the bigger question is possible theft. Get our new quality lady, Ispy, to track this down.”

Ispy discovered that gloves were placed in an open bin near the break room and employees swapped soiled gloves for clean ones, if needed, when they took breaks. The next time the soiled bin was emptied, she went through it glove by glove to determine if the swaps were appropriate. All were equally soiled or damaged.

She then walked the floor and visited each line, questioning the operators. Mike knew the party line. Ispy then went to security and used the in-plant cameras to watch the lines. “They lied to me!” she exclaimed at the next staff meeting. Don became enraged as Mark became uncontrollable. Their solution was to begin an employee rotation, with Pat assigned to shop work.

Total plant production went down as word of what Mike and Pat had been up to became known when Don held a town meeting.

Soon after, things had settled down, albeit production was still low. Mark attended a conference on total productive maintenance and total quality manufacturing. He invited the prime speaker to attend his plant’s off-site meeting in the Poconos. That was a revelation weekend for Mark, as his staff discussed the possibility of the redesign of the plant’s own work processes and how to change the line operations. The IE and Ispy quietly brought up the Pat and Mike episode. Mark jumped on it and said, “That’s it. We’re going to institute that across all the lines. Don, set up a town meeting and I’ll tell them what we are going to do.”

I’ll end the story here. You can mull the conundrum facing the employees and the problem the management team is building for itself.

This article is really about the dignity of the individual. How do we tap the creativity, passion, sense of accomplishment and social requirements of people to provide them a sense of self-motivation, acceptance, growth, recognition and maybe self-actualization? Quality, world-class leadership focuses on the “fifth discipline” of self-mastery and systems thinking.

How could this whole story have been handled to access the discretionary effort of all employees and become truly an industry leader?