Pie lessons

As a senior manager and former business owner I gained new insights when I was forced for a time to go 'back to the floor'.

I like pies. Individual hot pies with a lightly browned crust and the muted aroma of meaty promise wafting from fork-pricked holes in the top. Of all the characteristics of pies, heaviness is not one that had struck me - until I took a job where I had to handle them on trays, 48 at a time. I worked on the night shift: the factory had advertised for extra workers in the pre-Christmas period: and my business had failed.

Recession is an unpleasant feature of the economic cycle and I was caught by the downturn. We had been doing well, building reputation and sales, increasing profitability and making a nice living. In normal times, our few business problems might have been solvable, but the country had moved into the unforgiving climate that politicians call 'negative growth'. I decided to cut my losses and get back into employment, but that would take time and we needed money quickly, so the pie factory was the quickest way to earn some housekeeping. Behind the factory at 3 o'clock one morning, I poured the remains of a foul egg-glaze mixture into a skip and pondered the events that had brought me to such a place. It was a long way from my former life of smart hotels, first-class ferry cabins and frequent flyer benefits. My smart suits hung uselessly in the wardrobe as I stood in the cold, clothed in ill-fitting white overalls, hair net and cap.

Food factories are tightly controlled environments where what you do, who you talk to, when you can take breaks and how you are dressed are all covered by rules that have been checked and approved by food inspectors. It's no place for initiative, motivation or ambition. Men around me, some of whom had but recently mounted university platforms to collect their degrees, could hope for little better than to exchange their white hat for one with a yellow peak to show they had become 'leading hands'. Managers were remote figures, white coated and seldom seen. Supervisors were accessible, but ignorant of matters not covered in their Rule Book or the day's Order Sheet. Priorities changed hour by hour without warning nor explanation. We were cogs in a clean machine.

My team's routine was monotonous and repetitive - load pies onto trays, push them into the sprayer, thrust trays one after another into seven foot high trolleys, then trundle the trolleys round to the ovens. It was exhausting; it made my arms ache; and it diminished my sense of individuality. For occasional relief I might take a trolley load to the freezer room for later orders, mix up a fresh batch of egg-spray, or empty rubbish into that skip. My brain was excess to requirements.

At the end of the shift I climbed on my bike, forced the pedals round and held the handlebars loosely to avoid hurting my aching arms as I negotiated dark, rutted lanes back into town and a warm bed. I had just a few hours to catch up with sleep before forcing my numbed brain back to the task of seeking a new career. Night work is disorienting and, with no stimulus to engage the thought engine it left me feeling unnecessary and unfulfilled. It was with relief, on my return home one dawn, that I read my wife's note about a phone call following up on a management job I'd applied for. I was approaching the end of my sentence.

But my night-shift horror was a purgatory rather than a hell. After years in management I'd been back to the shop-floor and it changed my perspective. When I started the new job, the Personnel Manager introduced me to my staff, and I looked differently on those people. I had been told they were lazy, but they weren't. They were bored and de-motivated after a period of poor management and several months with no leader. I was able to think more like they thought, and I could come alongside and win their confidence and commitment. I knew what it was like to feel ignored - to go through work routines with no real interest and an aching wish that the clock hands would move round faster. Two months in the pie factory strained my arms but invigorated my sympathy muscles.

I like pies neither more nor less than I used to - but I have much more respect for working people.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000