The Way We Do Things Here

  • Culture isn’t what’s written down in the employee manual
  • Culture is what they tell you after you get done with training
  • Leader’s influence culture – they do not control it

Unconsciously, I bumped into culture before the ink on my diploma was dry.  The year that I graduated from college, I needed summer work before I started my first job in the fall.  I was fortunate to get a spot at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrow’s Point mill.  Although it has been closed for some years, in its day, it was an enormous, sprawling plant on the eastern end of Baltimore, one of the largest in the world.  After the usual round of filling out paperwork and testing and training during onboarding, I was assigned as a “Bearing-changer helper” in a cold tin mill. 

I finally found my mill and sat down with my supervisor to learn the lay of the land.  After we went through the basics and he was ready to send me off to my workstation, he pulled me to the side and said, “By the way, your shift starts at 7:15, but as a courtesy to the guy on the previous shift, you are expected to be ready to work at 7:00.”  Having just gotten out of the soft life of a college campus, I valued my sleep, every minute of it.  It took three times around the explanation cycle and “the look” from the supervisor before it penetrated my brain that I had better be there on the job 15 minutes before I was officially supposed to report to work.

My job was pretty straightforward.  I waited in an area away from the mill that was rolling steel into huge rolls of tin to be made into cans.  A huge overhead hoist that ran the length of the mill would go down the way and swing the rollers that came out of the mill down to my work area, where we would change the bearing boxes from the used rollers to the new ones.  The hoist would carry the new ones back to the mill, and the process would begin again. 

I was always puzzled by the designation of a “cold” mill.  At the end of the day shift, it was usually around 103 in the mill.  When you went outside and the rolls of steel were sitting on flatcars, you could feel the heat from fifty feet away.  Apparently, what “cold” meant was simply that the steel we worked with was gray, not glowing red!  Either way, it was plenty hot in the mill that summer.  Nobody moved very fast inside the mill.

As the summer wore on, I discovered other little things about my work environment.  The break room was air-conditioned, sort of.  Anyway, when I worked swing shift, the guys played pinochle on breaks.  A new game for me, I was eager to learn and play.  Unfortunately, I discovered another one of those unwritten rules: your seat at the table was entirely dependent on seniority.  If there were four guys who had worked there longer than I had, too bad, no pinochle.

In manufacturing environments, safety is always an important consideration.  Changing the bearing boxes meant unscrewing a giant split-ring collar off the box.  It was hot and greasy, and if your fingers were in the wrong position, it would be easy to lose one.  Our mill had hundreds of tons of machinery, forklifts going everywhere, not to mention the hoist that ran the length of the plant.  We hooked the bearing boxes and rollers to it with chains, another way to lose a finger or hand.  One day, I almost got run over by a forklift carrying a load, because the driver had an obstructed view.

The plant had safety messages all over the lunchroom walls and in strategic places in the plant.  When I talked with the other bearing changer guys about improving safety, they just laughed.  One of them sat me down and told me the way it was.  “The contract is a production contract,” he said.  “When we produce a certain tonnage, production gets a bonus.  We’re maintenance, and maintenance ain’t important, production is.  If you tried to do things the way the manual says, you’d have a shop steward and a white hat (supervisor) standing over you, clocking everything you did.  Pretty soon, you’d be assigned somewhere else, like a hot mill or the blast furnaces.”   I often wondered how many accidents occurred because the leaders decided that production, not safety was king.

Over the length of that summer, I learned “the way we do things here at Sparrows Point.”  I didn’t know it, but I was being exposed to and tutored in organizational culture.  In other words, what behaviors I was expected to display in order to fit in at the plant.  So, I played along; I displayed “appropriate excellence,” just good enough to keep the white hat off my back.  I moved carefully and cautiously, so I didn’t get hurt, but just quickly enough so that I didn’t attract attention.  During the union elections that summer, I voted the recommended slate and got patted on the back.

It’s no wonder that the plant isn’t there anymore.

Culture helps decide outcomes.  Understanding the behaviors that make up the culture is vital for any organization wanting to be nimble, adaptive and successful.  There are five factors that help us understand what behaviors exist in our organization and what we would like them to be.  Next time, we will discuss:  Efficacy

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