The Right Way? For Whom?

Sometimes the “right way” is the way it’s being done.

Most of us have grown up with the mantra, “There is a right way and a wrong way,” as we stumble through trying to perform tasks that are new to us. The right way is demanded and works with little or no reflection as to whether it is the best way. Such questions hopefully come later with experience, but sometimes they don’t.

I submit the so-called “right way” is relative. To support that thinking, I Googled “The right way,” and proudly in 0.6 second it produced 211,000,000 results. I’m sure the right way is in there, but where would one start to look? 

I’ve been thinking about this lately in part because from my sexagenarian cat bird’s seat, I see what seems to be a battle raging over what is the right way to accomplish work in our digital world. Do generational lines need to be drawn between what used to be the right way and what is now the right way?

My long view seat allows me to see some of life’s cycles, and in many cases, even project myself into those cycles. One of the things I’ve learned through experience has taught is there is little or nothing new under the sun.  

However, what is new is the daily influx of newborn babies, which taken together in a given time span becomes a generation. Obviously, my generation is baby boomers. It’s been a tough act to follow my dad’s greatest generation moniker, but we’ve tried. As each succeeding generation takes over, the one it is replacing usually pushes back. I’ve learned this is usually a wrong-headed approach, but it is still real. And, sometimes it is right.   

I remember a case in my own youthful experience. More years ago than I care to numerate, I was working at my first real job in manufacturing. It was in the time and methods department of a large machine tool foundry.

Time and methods, for those unfamiliar with the function, was used and perhaps still is, as a way to establish “standards” for performing various tasks. It was basically an averaging of how long a various worker took to do something (time) using prescribed procedures (methods) to do the job.

These standards were then used as the basis for establishing above par and below par performance. If you beat the standard, you received extra money. If not, well, your days at that job may be numbered.

We would go to different departments with a clipboard and a stop watch as our tools. We were somewhat conspicuous and often the person we studied to establish a standard tried to “psyche the test” by slowing down in an effort to set a lower standard. We knew the tricks and calculated the standards accordingly. It became sort of a game.

I was taught the “right way” to do a time study by my boss, a grizzled 35-plus year veteran named Ed Hunt. My chance to shine came when I was assigned to study a job, making small cores that used a newly developed, quick-setting binder.

The process was fast and trying to record each step was difficult because by the time I read the watch and recorded the time I would miss the next two steps. The study took forever. Well, being the young, smart guy I was, I figured there had to be a better way to do a time study than to watch the watch and manually record the time for each step of the process.

My brilliant idea was to eliminate writing the elapsed times on the clipboard and instead, speak them into a hand-held tape recorder. I was set to revolutionize my new field. I could see my name in text books alongside time and methods giants Frederick Taylor and the Gilbreths. Alas, it was not to be.

My boss, Mr. Hunt, patiently listened to my well-reasoned, absolutely air tight argument as to why my taped time recorder system was the wave of the time and methods industry future. I now realize by his patience that Mr. Hunt had seen my ilk before in various forms over the years.

He told me to knock myself out, so I debuted my marvelous new time study system to the shopfloor audience. Well, reviews were not good. They were not even mixed. Basically, I was totally panned.

What Mr. Hunt knew and I learned is the simple lesson that messing with what affects someone’s livelihood is a bad idea; regardless of how right you are, you’re wrong. And they had a legitimate point of view that I hadn’t considered in my rush for change. Sometimes the “right way” is the way it’s being done.