Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy 30th Birthday, Dodge Caravan!

30 years ago tomorrow, the Dodge Caravan was let loose on America and the world. While it has been mocked over the years for various reasons, mostly for being "uncool", it was revolutionary in the auto industry at the time (and oddly, somehow cooler than a station wagon) and became so popular in its day that Chrysler couldn't keep up with demand.

I only mention this because in the spring of 1985 I was hired by Lear Siegler, a Chrysler contractor, to build seats for this new modern marvel in their St Charles, MO facility. And for the three years I was there, boy howdy, did we build seats.

The plant ran 6 days a week, 8 hours a day with 2 shifts. It was broken up into the "front row" module where six teams built the front seats, "2nd row" module where four teams built the short, mid row seats, and a "third row" module where four teams built the longer, third row seat.

The initial rollout from Lear Siegler was slow and poor at best. Trying to keep up with a massive demand while building a new infrastructure caused supply chain delays, which was nothing compared to the quality issues with the product that did finally get delivered.

Another problem we initially faced was that the specific Lear Siegler plant that I worked at was non-union when it opened. If you've never dealt with a union, especially the UAW when it was still strong, then you've never seen how a union "operates". We would work hard and find our groove only to have half of a shipment return with "quality" issues. Those quality issues included, but weren't limited to, various scratches and scuffs, outright knife cuts in the shape of an X across the back of a seat and, my personal favorite, forklift holes through the front of the seat. For the record, the seats were attached to a metal pallet with plenty of built in forklift holes on every side. I'm not sure how a driver could miss those holes by that much, but hey, we were taking their jobs and they had a point to make. Needless to say, said point was made and very soon after opening, we were a union shop.

Early on, I was chosen to be part of the efficiency evaluation for building the 3rd row seat. A company was brought in and they set up cameras on select individuals in each department to videotape how we went about building these seats. They used these videos to evaluate our movements to determine not only what changes we should make in our motion, like what items we should pick up first, what order we should build the seats and what direction we should walk in general, but also determined exactly how many seats we should be able to build per hour and per day, taking in various factors such as climate, noise and fatigue.

On the day of the evaluation, my supervisor, who had been a builder just weeks prior and was promoted to management ("white shirts" is what we used to call them), came over to me and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice, told me that it was "...important that I give them something good to evaluate" and "...that I should do my best to ignore the cameras and people and act like they weren't there filming and to make sure I work extra hard to make everyone look good to corporate" and " important this was to everyone's career at Lear, if you get my drift" (read: his career at Lear). I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my work station as I did every morning. Shortly after the white shirt walked away, my union rep came over and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice told me to "...make sure you don't overdo it. We all gotta stick together here and if you give them too much, they'll expect it all the time. I know you'll do us proud". I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my workstation as I did every morning.

Now mind you, none of these evaluators had ever built a seat before nor had any of them actually worked in an auto assembly plant, but they determined that based on environment and other factors we should be able to easily build 12 seats per hour at minimum and we eventually settled on 110 seats a day, per module, per shift. To put that into perspective, that's 110 seats per day, times six days, times four modules, times two shifts, for a total of 5280 third row seats per week. Per WEEK! And this plant didn't shut down for more than 4 or 5 weeks in a year for model changes or holidays. We were building Caravans so fast we would work through the Christmas holidays.

We cranked out seats at a record pace. We were a "Just In Time" company, meaning the Lear Siegler builders filled a huge "bank" made of pallet shelving with all of the seats that were on the production schedule over at the Chrysler building in advance of Chrysler needing it. On the other side of this bank were drive through bays where the semi-trucks would pull in with soft side panels on their side, meaning the side of the trailer would pull back like a shower curtain, and forklifts would load the trucks from the side in the order of the upcoming build. The trucks would pull away and, in less than 30 minutes, would be unloaded over at the Chrysler plant and begin to get installed in the vans immediately. Any delays in this process would shut the line down at Chrysler at great expense to Lear Siegler. And yes, it happened occasionally.

Near the end of my third year at Lear Siegler I suffered from injuries to both of my hands brought on by the constant pounding of the material on the seats to get the seams to line up properly. I would have worked through it but, due to union issues we were having with Lear, it looked as though the company would close the plant to break the union, so it was a good time to get my hands repaired via surgery. As expected, the plant was closed just as I was recovered and we were laid off. I understand the plant re-opened, hiring back many of the same employees it had when it shuttered but I moved on to my next stage in life in the entertainment lighting industry.

I look back fondly on those days. My father had worked for a time in the industrial machine as a UAW employee building carburetors in the 1970's when manufacturing was waning. That machine ebbs and flows as it has throughout automotive history. And when it ebbs, times are tough for the everyone involved in the supply chain.

But during the heyday of the Dodge Caravan, the American machine was humming a sweet song. One that kept soccer moms moving 10 years before the term was even coined.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mayo The Force Be With You

I really like sandwiches. There's something to be said for a food that can be as simple as a piece of bread with a slice of cheese when you're in a hurry or as complex as, let's say, The Bomb Sandwich made in good old New York, NY, which consists of ham, turkey, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, American, Swiss and provolone cheeses, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, black olives, marinated hot peppers, dressing, mustard, mayo…. and a free trip to the medical center of your choice.

One of my favorite condiments for a sandwich is mayonnaise. Specifically Miracle Whip. Now, before you start ranting at me like I've lost all of my taste buds in a freak frosting laced mixer licking accident, I do know there is a difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. Mostly that one tastes good and the other is more like, well, salty paste.

I've struggled for years with what should be a simple task; the even distribution of Whip across a slice of bread. Again, I know what you're thinking, and it’s probably something along the lines of “If this is your first world problem then I'm pretty sure you need to get therapy and then evaluate your priorities”, but stay with me for a moment. When you stick your knife or other utensiled spreading device into the opening, you're left gauging how much you can realistically put onto a slice of bread, then you spread the product onto the bread and, voila, you're ready to move on to the next step.

Here’s where things begin to go south for me pretty quick. I tend to misjudge the proper amount of Whip needed to get this perfect. For the record, I tend to miscalculate how much mustard should go on my sandwich too, but I digress. In the ultimate show of geek bravado I've even gone as far as to use measuring spoons to get just the right amount of goodness on each slice. But, alas, I continue to struggle with this very simple process causing either a dryness that ruins a good sandwich or forcing the edges to become gooped with so much condiment that it drips on the plate, or in my case my shirt, wasting what is really the essence of a good sandwich.

And now I'm pretty sure you're thinking that the essence of a really good sandwich is what you put between the bread, not the condiments. But really, what good is any sandwich without the right condiment? Is a hot dog really a hot dog without mustard and ketchup? Some would say without relish you're just wasting your time but I say that if you add relish but left off the mighty mustard and ketchup combination, you'd be ruining a perfectly good lunch.

We could argue all day about the proper way to make a sandwich and there really wouldn't be a right answer (other than mayo or Miracle Whip which isn't even a contest), but the fact of the matter is when I want to enjoy a simple bologna sandwich I want it to have the perfect amount of condiment goodness. Because too little just makes it a dull, effort filled chore and too much, well, makes me have to change my shirt.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Coulda Been Writer, But I Wound Up Here...

Don Henley famously sang "Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here". Yesterday I found myself floating in a pool in a pseudo-meditative state wondering about the many changes in my life, as well as the things that could have been different. It's not the first time this has happened. I choose to take the stance that more people do this than are willing to admit it. You know who you are. You're the one at a red light so focused in thought that someone behind you has to tap the horn to get you on your way. Or you're the one in the queue at the bank or in line at Panera's and the person behind the counter says "Next in line, please" for the 3rd irritated time. You tell people you're thinking about a grocery list or if you left the coffee machine on, but let's get real. You're wondering to yourself "How in the heck did I get here?"

It's in that instant my mind is transported into some Capra-esque world where I find myself wondering, "What if I had done...?". Commercials tend to make me think this way too. Especially commercials extolling the virtues of getting your degree in some fantastical field like Crime Scene Investigation or Court Reporter. I find myself thinking "I coulda done that" while I put another scoop of Breyers Ice Cream in my mouth.

What got me thinking this yesterday was reading about a couple from Winter Park, FL who have recently opened their second high-end restaurant in Orlando. Having one successful restaurant in the Orlando market is hard enough, but to have two of them is like winning the lottery. Twice.

I do not know what lifestyle they came from as their brief bio doesn't allude to them growing up in a good home or being well-off. It does state that both of them grew up in the same community but not meeting until they were both at a culinary institute where they received their degrees, then went about working at some of the finer establishments in New York and Florida where they honed their skills until they opened their own successful businesses here in Central Florida. I guarantee that they worked hard, made mistakes, learned from them and found success. But this isn't about them.

By the time I moved in with my father and step-mom as a freshman in high school, I had grown up in a fairly well-to-do environment. My mother had been an executive in a travel agency and, by the time I was 14, had moved me to Florida and opened her own agency. We lived in a very nice house in an upper-class neighborhood. I had been raised traveling the world surrounded by very successful people all while getting to learn from other cultures first hand. I was what you might call "privileged".

My father, conversely, struggled to make ends meet and lived a step above abject poverty while growing up and into his early adult life. We were always loved, warm, had clean clothes and there was always food on the table. But the house was tiny, lacked any form of insulating capability and we had field mice, which will have to be another post altogether.

One thing that my parents did consistently well was tell me and my siblings "You can be whatever you set your mind to." And my dad was also fond of saying "I don't care if you grow up to be a sh**-bum, just be the best sh**-bum you can be." In an age where the internet didn't exist and cable TV was in its infancy, much less available to those of us who lived in the backwoods of Missouri, this was great advice. Our minds could wander around dreaming of being in the NFL or an astronaut or even a writer.

But the thing neither of them could help with was how to get there. Or anywhere for that matter. The idea that there was a path to anything just never materialized in my youth. This is not a fault of theirs. There's no ill will. It's just that in that time, in that place, the idea of doing something other than getting a union job and providing for your family was not a driving force.

An early mentor of mine, Steve Helliker, used to bring underprivileged kids from a local high school to our lighting shop in Orlando to show them that there was something other than flipping burgers for a living. He'd parade them to each department to show them the many different facets of the business from sales down to loading the truck. I can't say that we ever reached any of these kids. My hope is that we did and maybe some of them went on to do something fulfilling in their lives. The point was we gave them options and opened a new world to them.

I've had the fortune of mentoring someone as well who not only discovered they had a talent but actually stayed in the entertainment industry and is currently working full-time at a theatre in Birmingham. So the importance of having direction is evident and it can make a difference.

I've had many opportunities to make a right turn or a left turn in my life. Some of those turns were wonderful decisions while others will linger as learning moments. And the last year has shown me that drastic change is still possible even as I near the midway point in my existence on this planet. What I haven't quite figured out is what I want to do with myself when I grow up. I know I want to write, which I've stated before. More importantly, I want to make a living writing, which leads me back to the crux of this article. Had I started writing in earnest when I was a teen, and had I had the direction on how to make that desire a reality, I may have had the job of my dreams.

There are countless stories of people who didn't start to paint or sing or follow their dreams until very late in their lives. But I wonder if they left it all behind to try their hand at happiness or were they finally comfortable and able to follow their dreams?

Take this opportunity to talk to your kids or even young people who work for you. Tell them they can do what they want to do in this life. This is their time and there is nothing limiting about their desires or abilities other than them. But then give them tools to learn how get there. That second step is actually more important than telling them they can be whomever they want to be.

So, as I float around the pool dreaming of a future that wasn't, I have to wonder is it still possible to be what you want this late in life? The what-if's are endless and I choose not to dwell on them. Yet here I am thinking over and over, I coulda been a writer, but I wound up here...