On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Who Manages The Managers?
The chronicles and personal stories of the Footloose Forester, up to this point, purposely avoided episodes that were critical of others, accusatory, or those that cast aspersions. Although everyone has harbored more than a few negative thoughts in their lives; and although everyone has some tendency or desire to expose the wrongdoing, incompetence and stupidity of others; most of us try to stay positive in what we say or do. Perhaps we do that because we fear that the other party will turn the tables on us and expose some nasty things about us. Since none of us is without sin, the possibility of reciprocity and evening the score usually keeps our impulses in check.
This chronicle was not intended to point out wrongdoing, incompetence, or stupidity…it just turned out to be about all of those things. It is a true tale, based on personal observations and participation as an employee. But in defense of innocent colleagues and in deference to upper management that may have been unaware of the poor management in one of their branches, the names of everyone have been omitted; the dates have been changed; and a few of the physical locations and details have been disguised. To the extent that we senior citizens are encouraged to share our life stories with family and friends, however; this belated story is offered as part of the legacy of the Footloose Forester.
Some years ago, The Footloose Forester was a driver at Speedy Rent-a-Car in Pawtucket, Wisconsin. His job was to transport clean cars for rent from the rental service area at the airport parking garage; and to return dirty cars back to the maintenance and preparation area about a mile away. On a typical busy day at the height of the travel and vacation season, he drove 30-40 cars during his shift. In the off-season and on most week-ends, we were not as busy.
The clean cars generally did not have issues about their presentability during the warm months of the year; but in winter months with snow and ice clinging to the exterior surfaces in Speedy’s two acre, open parking area; the issues of appearance and customer acceptability were both in play. Customers did not want a cold car if they could have a warm one; they complained if there was snow on the roof; and if ice had frozen the door and trunk locks. That is where the story about incompetence comes in. The Footloose Forester took up the issue of unacceptable cars directly with the shift managers on site; but the city manager, their superior, did nothing in the way of posting or verbally implementing a clear policy directive on how to prepare and present rental cars to customers during winter months.
Thus it was that over a course of several winters, the Footloose Forester repeatedly brought up the need for a standing policy regarding car preparation in winter months. Yet, the city manager never openly acknowledged his suggestions during staff meetings; and never authorized his or any other written guidelines as part of company policy. Year after year, winter after winter, the issues of ice and snow on cars were never acknowledged as being problems; or taking extra time in car preparation as being necessary and in the company’s best interests to implement. Needless to say, the woman who was city manager was always irritated at the Footloose Forester when he brought up the issues. He was persistent and brought the subject up every winter, partly because nobody else would, even though the problems affected everybody, especially the customers. On the other hand, since she never, ever put a policy in place, the Footloose Forester thought that she was incompetent.
How far can one go to make one’s views heard? How far does one tempt fate in openly criticizing the boss before that boss has him fired for some lame reason? Why are other employees so timid that they don’t bring up such issues on their own? It is because they fear for their own jobs?
At this point, an example can serve to help the reader visualize the circumstances when incompetence ruled supreme at Speedy Rent-a-Car. In the winter of 1977 the snowfall was particularly heavy. Although the maintenance service crews (the service agents) dutifully cleaned the interiors and exteriors of cars before putting them on the rental-ready line, an over-night snowfall of more than 20 inches covered all of the cars that sat out in the open. The 5-6 morning shift drivers cleaned the windshields just enough to see out, as they transported the otherwise clean-and-ready cars to the rental service area a mile away. When they arrived at the roofed rental area at the airport parking garage, the cars still had about 20 inches of snow on their roofs and trunks. Some, but not all, of the drivers then walked away to present the keys to Speedy’s sales agents for subsequent rental. Does that sound like a responsible and competent approach to customer satisfaction?
Not only was there a steady stream of snow-laden but otherwise clean cars coming on line, and driven by uncaring or seemingly lazy drivers; but the parking garage already had an inventory of snow-laden cars from the previous night. To make matters worse, the zero and below-zero temperatures had frozen the snow in place. It was not possible to work the windshield wipers because they were buried under the crust of snow on the hoods of those cars that had not been properly prepared for rental. What an incompetent way to operate! The cars were covered with snow, had frozen door and trunk locks, and were unsafe to drive because the windshield wipers were inoperable. Did any other driver do anything about it? No, apparently not. The Footloose Forester can’t remember anyone supporting him or his position, at least openly and in front of their superiors. Does this scenario sound credible to you, the reader?
So what to do next? The Footloose Forester decided to take action on his own. He went inside the terminal building where the keys for rental vehicles were kept and asked for the keys of the 10 cars that were unsafe to drive. He then told the rental agents to take those cars off-line so that they were unavailable for renting. Next he set about taking the ice and snow off all 10 cars so that they would be presentable and operable. His immediate superior and chief driver disapproved of what he did, and said so. The chief driver told the Footloose Forester in no uncertain terms that our job was to put clean cars on line, not to prepare cars that were already on line. Fair enough point….a division of labor. But there was nobody assigned to prepare cars once they were put on line; and never had been, so the Footloose Forester did it himself, risking further rebuke. Nobody else offered to help. What a narrow minded way to run Speedy Rent-a-Car!
The Footloose Forester stayed in the parking garage until the job was done. He knew he was going to be criticized further, by his driver colleagues who perhaps hoped to see him get into trouble. For him, however, it was an easy call. His sense of priorities told him that if a car was unsafe to drive beyond the premises, that his actions would be vindicated. There never was any vindication other than the fact that he did not get fired. If this tale sounds unbelievable, little wonder that the Footloose Forester remembers such details of life’s episodes as being in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category.
His dated and archived personal computer files support his contention that he made his case, year after year, for a company policy regarding car preparation. His did his homework at home; on his own time; and with his own computer. Of course, he was resented by nearly everyone, as he knew he would be. It was the price he was willing to pay to be his own man. But, in the final analysis, his approaches changed nothing with respect to Speedy Rent-a-Car policy; nor did they answer the prefacing question, who manages the managers?