“The Line” was the most miserable place in the whole Ore-Ida Foods factory. While 530 workers operated machines that cut potatoes into french fries, drove lift trucks to move product, repaired broken pallets, and loaded semi-trailers, “The Line” is where three people stood for eight hours picking up and setting down boxes. That job was considered drudgery and lowest level work in the plant. One day I told my foreman I’d work the line anytime he wanted me to without complaint. That offer changed my life.
The Line: You need to picture this. A box would first appear on a conveyor belt coming through a square entry high up on a wall. Each box was filled with individual bags of finished potato products like Crinkle Cut fries, Potatoe Wedges, Golden Crinkles, Hash Browns, you get the tasty picture. Each box had a red number stamped on it and a diagram of how to lay it on pallets behind the line worker. The diagram was key because of each layer of boxes needing to be placed in reverse of the layer below it. And since different kinds of product required varying sizes of boxes, some needed to be stacked four levels high while others six or more.
When a pallet was full, someone driving a lift truck would pick up the product, wrap it tightly with stretch wrap and drive it to its scheduled spot in a mammoth freezer. Then it went to a truck. Then it was delivered to a supermarket near you.
My work at Ore-Ida in Greenville, Michigan began after I graduated high school. I wanted to go to college but because I didn’t have a plan, my dad would talk me out of it. “What are you going to study?” “I want to work with people.” “Then drive a taxi.” I knew if I wasn’t going to school, I’d need a job. Ore-Ida was hiring and I started in their potato cellars where trucks filled with fresh potatoes would back in and I’d help unload them. I was a good worker and my foreman liked me. Heck, I would have liked me. I was early for work, accepted my assignments without the eye roll, worked hard, kept my sense of humor and encouraged my co-workers. When the potato season ended, I was invited to the factory to continue my career in spud heaven. I accepted.
After a day of orientation, my supervisor, Wilbur, sent me to the line with a couple of well-traveled employees to train me. Immediately I got the sense they intended to enjoy watching me fail. They got me in position, showed me the red numbers, diagrams, and pallets – waved to two other gents who were already working the line and walked away.
No problem at first. I had lines 5 & 7. I’d pick up a box look at the diagram, turn and set it down on the pallet. But it wasn’t long until production picked up. The product came faster and faster and the boxes I missed would go to the end of the line, turn on rollers and conveyors and come right back on the same line. Only moments passed and the line was full of my boxes. They started to crush each other and the product was falling on the floor and the conveyor. The two guys down the line began using expletives in an intimidating way.
Ever see Lucille Ball as the factory worker? Those bonbons or whatever she was supposed to wrap came so fast she started stuffing them in her shirt and eating them in order to keep up with production.
Yeah, that’s the scene. Only I was slipping and sliding on Tater Tots and Texas Crispers.
I heard an announcement for assistance come from the speaker above me. The two clowns who wished all this on me had big smiles when they got there with their brooms. Production slowed so we could get caught up. My two buddies walked away and the nightmare started all over again. By the end of the day, I’d had enough and decided to quit. I got home where mom and dad – long time factory workers – were having dinner at the kitchen table. Right, I was 19 and living at home. When I told them my horror story and that I was going to quit, they laughed. “That happens to everybody!” My mom told me if I go back and work that line another day or two “pretty soon you’ll be showing everybody how to do it.”
I thought all night about it and decided I’d go back and challenge myself. Then the fun started.
I was driving to work and about a mile from the plant. I had a nice stereo in my 1974 AMC Hornet. The radio turned up loud when a “Zig Ziglar Moment” came on. Ziglar was a high performing salesman turned author and motivational speaker. “…blah, blah, blah, and blah, blah…and remember, you get what you want outta life when you help enough other people get what they want. I’m Zig Ziglar and I’ll see YOU, at the top!”
I wondered if I’d heard that right. “Get what I want…help others get what they want.” I parked my car and sat for a bit. “What do I want?” Respect? Better training? Not have co-workers call me names? Master “The Line?” These didn’t seem like big goals. But I knew I’d have to try this idea. I decided to go in and “give myself to whatever the boss wanted. Help him get what he wants. Then I’ll get what I want. Not sure what that is.”
Hard hat under my arm and lunch pail in hand I went to the foreman’s office. It was a raised counter were supervisors and administrative people were always rushing around. I saw Wilbur and called him over. “‘Mornin’ Steve! How about some coffee?” I hated coffee. “Sure, but just a half a cup, thanks! Wilber, today I’m yours. From now on you give me whatever job you want me to do and I’ll do it for you – no attitude or problems.” I choked down some coffee. “Freezer, pallets, the line…whatever.” Wilbur stepped back. “Well okay, Steve. Thanks for that!” When he came into the break room where he handed out assignments, he gave me the line. I smiled and nodded in agreement.
Later that morning I was still struggling with boxes of hash browns, but it was getting better. By late in the afternoon I had taught myself to clear that line! I’d yell at the hole in the wall where the boxes came from, “that’s all ya got? Come on! Give me somethin’!” I could take the largest boxes, when they came three in a row, strike the corners to spin them sideways, pick up all three and toss them on the pallet. Over the next few weeks, I dominated that line. I was staying in great shape and making good money.
In the meantime, knowing I wanted something different than factory work, I enrolled at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan. Since school wouldn’t start for a couple of months, I kept working getting the company and Wilbur what they wanted. High production, no complaints and helping my co-workers.
One morning when Wilbur finished giving assignments he added: “Hey Steve, can you meet me in the office across the lot after work?” “Heck yeah.”
I had not thought about what the meeting meant. I assumed he had something for me to work on there. When I walked in, I was directed to go through a beautiful dark wooden door into a pretty nice office. Wilber was seated and a tall good looking guy in a suit was standing in front of a big desk. “Have a seat, Steve.” Suited guy introduced himself and jumped right into telling me what a great job I had done over the last year. He asked me what goals I had for the future. I told him about my plan for Grand Valley.
Then it happened. I could hear Ziglar’s voice in my head. “You’ll get what you want outta life when you help enough other people get what they want.” The hair on my arms stood up. Exec guy with the suit offered me a night foreman position and said it would likely lead me to bigger things in the company. “We’re growing you know.”
I turned it all down because I knew there was something extraordinary waiting for me beyond Potatoes O’Brien. I thanked them and gave my two weeks notice. But that meeting had a lifelong, profound effect.
For the past 37 years, I’ve grown personally and professionally in many ways, the greatest is the growth that has come from helping others get what they want. I consider the growth as a success from helping others win. More money for them, more responsibility, more playing time, more use of their skill set, more fun, more friendship, more control over time and money and weight, more practice time, more love. I’ve been clearly able to watch how that sort of output has provided me with life-changing input. The thrill of seeing others succeed has provided me with life-giving energy. A gift.
Leaders have an obligation to get people the tools they need to do their job. Better technology, clear directions, training, inspiration, communication, safe environment, support, honesty, trust, know the ups and downs of your employees, set goals and help people meet them. Parents have an obligation to get their kids what they need to grow and be productive. Love, friendship, listening, helpfulness, compassion, fun, understanding, trust, support, proper discipline, exercise, and fresh air.
Workers have an obligation to do their best for their leaders and company. Be a leader yourself, give recommendations for problems that need to be solved, be a good teammate, help your co-workers, make sacrifices for the good of the team, build trust, be to work on time and give your best. Children have an obligation to help their parents with chores, be friendly with neighbors, be respectful, be trustworthy, share, take turns, try hard in school, take care of your things, and treat other family members kindly.
Notice these are all “outgoing.” They are actions and principles that you use to reach out. Life is outgoing, rarely incoming. “You get what you want when you help other people get what they want.” Ziglar was right. It all comes back to you. Often years later when I’ve forgotten about something I did for a co-worker or leader in the company, it suddenly brings me some love out of nowhere. It works.
“The Line” was the most miserable place in that whole factory. Until it met me. I saw Wilbur working in a retail shop many years later. I was shocked he remembered my name. “Heard ya on the radio, Steve. Sounds like you’re doing well.” “I am Wilbur. And you just made my day.”