Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
Comments from the original post:
I’m sure just about everyone does this. When they look at someone, they occasionally hear music. Some sort of song that is inspired by the person. For instance when I look at my mom, I suddenly begin to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (sorry about the advertisements. Nothing I can do about that).
For those with older browsers that are not able to view video links, I will include the link below the video: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
A few years ago when I was working for Dell, after I had given a thumb drive loaded with the songs I liked to listen to, to a friend of mine, Nina Richburg, when she left our team, she came up to me later and said she had never heard such an eclectic selection of music before. I told her I knew what she meant. I had included classical, rock and roll, electronic, movie soundtracks, country, easy listening, and just about every other genre in the book.
I didn’t explain to her how I can come to the point where I listened to so many different types of music. The answer of course is that I had worked at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma for 20 years and I had learned to listen to the music that played in my head while working alongside some of the most diverse set of humans that comprised the Power Plant Men and Women at the plant.
I think it began while I was a janitor working with Pat Braden. When I would work with him, I hear a certain song in my head. So, I began to associate that song with Pat. I’m sure many at the plant heard the same song playing in their heads while interacting with Pat. He was such a nice guy:
The direct link is: Sesame Street Theme Song.
I guess you can call it Power Plant Theme Songs, since the songs that usually played in my head represented the type of person. This wasn’t always the case. For instance, when I looked at the electric Foreman and my close friend, Charles Foster, I would usually hear this song:
The direct link is: GhostBusters.
I would hear this song, because when the movie came out, and the song would be playing on the radio, Charles’ son Tim Foster thought the song was saying, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” So, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Charles Foster.
I have told stories about Gene Day (formally known as Victor Eugene Day — I didn’t misspell “formally), and how it was always fun to play jokes on him. The main reason is because Gene Day was always so easy going. When you look at Gene, the obvious song that pops in my mind is this:
The direct link is: Feelin’ Groovy.
Aren’t they cute? If you took Garfunkel (the tall singer) and shrank him down to the size of Simon, then you would have Gene Day. It was worth the trip to the control room just to encounter Gene Day, so that the rest of your day, you could go around the Power Plant, performing your feats of magic while you were “Feelin’ Groovy!” just for looking at Gene Day. That’s the effect he would have on passerby’s.
My bucket buddy Diana Brien had her own theme song. This song would come to mind not because the song itself reminded me of her, but because she remarked one day when the song was playing on the radio that she really liked it. So, from that point, this was Dee’s song:
The direct link is: Desperado.
I had some songs in my head when I looked at other Power Plant men because it actually sounded like they were singing the song themselves. This was the case with Bill Bennett, our A Foreman. He had a gruff Cigarette voice so I could easily hear Bill Bennett singing this song. Actually, ZZ Top was probably inspired to write this song by Bill Bennett:
Direct link to: La Grange.
The Extreme Power Plant character of some Power Plant Men that I was inclined to “Hero Worship” because of their tremendous talent led me to hear music of a more epic nature. This was true for both Earl Frazier and Andy Tubbs. Earl Frazier was a welder of such talent and when combined with his loyal country nature, even though his occupation was different than this song… This is what usually came to mind when I would look at Earl Frazier:
Direct link: Wichita Lineman.
Andy Tubbs had the same sort of “epic-ness” that Earl had. He was “Country” like Earl also. At the same time, Andy was one of the most intelligent Power Plant Man that graced the Tripper Gallery by his presence. That is probably why this song would come to mind when I would look at Andy:
Direct Link: Good Bad and the Ugly.
Notice the resemblance to Andy’s picture and the song. You could hear the Good Bad and the Ugly Song start up every time Andy would leave the foreman’s office and step out into the shop.
I have covered the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley” in a previous post. He was another “Epic Hero” of mine. There was not a lot that Larry couldn’t do. His epic-ness was more like a knight from the time of King Arthur. I think that’s why I would hear the song that I heard when I would look at Larry. The movie Excalibur included the perfect song for a knight riding out to meet the enemy just as Larry would step out of the Labor Crew building each morning when I worked for him as a laborer. I would hear the following epic song go through my mind (try singing along with this song):
Direct link: O Fortuna.
Flashbacks of Latin Class!
If you look at Larry’s picture while listening to O Fortuna, you can actually picture him dressed in armor riding on a backhoe just as if it was a War Horse, heading off into battle!
There were other epic characters at the plant that would inspire similar songs. Toby O’Brien, as a Power Plant Engineer, though, not “epic” in the Power Plant Man sort of way, still inspired music when in his presence. I think it was his calm demeanor even when faced with those who may disagree with him (to put it mildly), and it was his deliberate resolve to focus on tasks at hand that left me with this music running through my mind when in his presence:
Direct Link: Moonlight Sonata.
The music fits, doesn’t it?
Scott Hubbard, my partner in crime (not literally…. it felt like a crime sometimes having so much fun and getting paid for it at the same time), was always such a hard worker. Like most industrious Power Plant Men, Scott was always running around (not literally again…) with a smile on his face working away on one project or other. That’s probably why this song was always going through my head when we were working together. It always seemed like everything was going like clockwork:
Direct link: Miss Marple Theme Song.
When I would go to the tool room to get parts, if Bud Schoonover was working there, I could usually hear his song even before I arrived. I don’t know if it was some kind of psychic ability I had, or it was because I would observe the faces of others as they were leaving the tool room, that would queue me in that Bud was on Tool Room duty. Either way, when this song would start up in my head, I knew that Bud Schoonover was near:
Direct Link: Baby Elephant Walk.
It wasn’t because Bud reminded me of an elephant that this song would come to mind. I think it had more to do with Bud’s carefree attitude about things. This song just seemed to come to mind while I would wait at the tool room gate while Bud would search for the parts I had requested. He was big like Paul Bunyan, but he had the expression of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, as I have often mentioned. It was the squint and the jutting jaw when he spoke…
Here is Bud:
Johnny Keys was another True Power Plant Man that had his own theme song. This one came to mind just about the first time I met Johnny. I could tell right away where he would rather be. This song actually came up with a lot of different Power Plant Men, including Ben Davis and Don Burnett. Don and Johnny were working together as machinists when I first met them the summer of 1979. Ben Davis was good friends with both Don and Johnny, so this song would come to mind whenever I encountered any of these three Power Plant Men:
Direct link: Daniel Boone.
There are some Power Plant Men that sort of reminded me of a bear. Ronnie Banks was that way, and so was Dave McClure. Ronnie reminded me of a bear because he walked like one. Dave reminded me of a bear because he was a big scruffy Power Plant Man. He was gentle like Gentle Ben in the TV show Gentle Ben. I didn’t hear the theme song for Gentle Ben when I worked around these two. Instead I heard this song because this song captured their personality much better:
Direct Link: Bare Necessities.
Ron Kilman, the Plant manager (yeah. I have a song for him too). But I wanted to say that Ron Kilman had his own clerk (secretary) that sort of acted like a receptionist when you entered his office. Her name is Jean Kohler. She was the same age as my mother. Unlike hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as I do with my mom, when I would have the opportunity to talk with Jean Kohler, she was such a lady that the following song would immediately come to my mind:
Direct Link: Lady.
I don’t have a picture of Jean Kohler, so you will just have to picture a very nice prim and proper lady with a perfectly sweet smile.
Ron Kilman’s theme song was The William’ Tell Overture. I guess because of the pace that he usually had to work. I listen to this song often because it helps me work. The song is longer than most people are used to hearing, so, I’ll just send you a link to the part that most people are familiar:
Direct Link: Lone Ranger.
In the Power Plant there were a few “sour apples”. In my posts I generally like to focus on the True Power Plant Men and their accomplishments. Occasionally when the topic is right, I may mention those of a less savory character…. Without saying much more than that, whenever I would encounter Jim Arnold, who was the Supervisor over the engineers, and later the head of Operations and later, the head of Maintenance, several songs would come to mind. The theme of the songs were songs like this one:
Direct Link: You’re So Vain.
I searched everywhere for a picture of Jim Arnold and this was the only one I could find:
What more can I say? I will leave it at that. Now you can see why someone would think that I listen to an eclectic selection of music. Because I worked with such a diverse bunch of Power Plant Men and Women!
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing. Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees. With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.
Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder. I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing). I knew we weren’t going to be working harder. — What does that really mean anyway. I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”. Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one. After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.
Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other. They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals. I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.
I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input. For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team. That was disbanded immediately. We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work). The Safety Task Force did survive.
We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone. It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out. This was actually a good idea. I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections. Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.
It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.
We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections. That was not our responsibility. It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead. I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”. The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less. The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.
We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work. We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do). Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”. I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.
We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop. We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop. We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional. We are all Maintenance now. No longer specialized (sort of).
We were going to have four Maintenance teams. Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people. Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.
An electrician will learn how to tack weld. A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire. An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe. We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.
When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen. Alan Kramer was my new foreman. He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.
It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet. Actually, this was just a first pass. The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done. I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.
One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster. We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post: “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“). We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.
Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work. We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us. They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).
As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes. First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics. We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.
Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks. Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies. The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.
Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message. I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone. I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone. The Phone number by the way is: (405) 553-29??. Oh. I can’t remember the last two digits. 🙂
Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well. I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great. The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.
Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work. I will start by describing how we used to do things…. Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…
— start here —
An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.). It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics. (start the clock here). When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem. Yep. The pump is not working. They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.
A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor. The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it. They finally assign it to a team to go work on it. Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O. The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump. The next day the electrician unwires the motor. They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.
The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired. When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump. At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.
The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.
A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both. So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.
The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready. When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back. Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.
The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.
During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back. So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.
The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.
They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.
The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up. After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction. An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor. The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor. Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.
The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service. The M.O.s are completed.
— End here. The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —
Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).
— Start here —
The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard. A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired. He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump. The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.
The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance. When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor. While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside. The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on. If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump. It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump. Any machinist work is done at that time.
When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on. The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor. The operators are called to bump test the motor. As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed. The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.
— End here. The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks. Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —
The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority. We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work. This was a fantastic change from working in silos.
This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”. Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase. To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”. Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams. I have seen them work successfully. There was only one catch which I will talk about later. This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet! So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.
The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award. Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) . When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before. We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“). It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.
My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City. He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister. Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).
Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting. We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top. Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.
The green color meant that nothing happened. The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred. The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening. There was one black bead in the jar. That meant that you died when you did something unsafe. I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.
The types of accidents were something like: First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.
A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest. The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers. The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.
Great! Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza! Only, how were we going to do it? I was working on Alan Kramer’s team. My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean… not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.
Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.
The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1. Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today. Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.
The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver. They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on. That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.
Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner. Sounds simple enough.
We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team. Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver. I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed. I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.
Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest! That Pizza should be ours! I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.” I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman). I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”
I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find. Here are a few of them:
“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”
“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”
“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”
“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”
After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else. So, I began to think of alternate screen savers. One caught my attention. It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing. You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):
For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link: “After Dark Screensavers“.
The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it. It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time. You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.
Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans. I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).
With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:
I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.
I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen. That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans. I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan. The effect worked out real well. Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.
Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest. I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me. I didn’t want to influence his decision. Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win. It was the coolest screensaver around. The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.
I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant. Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.
The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting. A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was. I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team. I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.
It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy. I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years. It’s about time.”
The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis. We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza! Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.
I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won. Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.
In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:
Safety First. Be Safe. Safety begins here. Watch your step. Check your boundaries. Have Good Posture. Haste makes waste. Bend your knees. Avoid Shortcuts. Be Safe or Be Gone. Know your chemicals. Check O2 before Entry. Use Safety Guards. Know your limit. Report Spills. Safety is job #1. Beware of Pinch Points. Buckle up. Safety is no accident. Impatience kills. Strive to Survive. Protect your hearing. Use the right tool. Keep your back straight. Drive friendly. Keep Aisles clear. Don’t take chances. Prevention is the cure. Safety is your job. Communicate with others. Always tie off. Don’t cut corners. Wear your glasses. Act safe. Barricade Hazards. Use your respirator. Be responsible. Lock it out. Plug your ears. Stay fit. Safety never hurts. Don’t block exits. Be aware of your surroundings. Safety is top priority. Don’t be careless. Pick up your trash. Think Ahead. Slippery When Wet. Think Safety. Don’t hurry. Report Hazards. Wear your gloves. Save your eyes. No Running. Wear your Safety Belt. Plan Ahead. Avoid Backing. Use your Safety Sense. Good Housekeeping. Get Help. Keep Cylinders Chained. Protect your hands. Don’t improvise. Beware of hazards. Get the Safety Habit. Be Prepared. Gear up for Safety. Use your PPE. Do not litter. Zero Accidents. Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads). Eat Right. Keep Floors clean. Watch out. Safety Pays. Drive Safely. Take Safety Home. Know Safety, use Safety. Read the MSDS. Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns. Follow the rules. Wear your hard hat. Watch out for your buddy. Test your Confined space. Remember the Yellow Flag. Safe Mind, Sound Body. Clean up your spills. Don’t take risks. Beware of Ice. Watch out for the other guy. Obey the rules. Don’t tailgate. Circle for safety. Safety Me, Safety You. Protect your Toes. Knowing is not enough. When in doubt, Check it out. Falls can kill. Be Alert! Avoid slick spots. Safety is a team event. Almost is not enough. Avoid the Noise. Give Safety your all. And finally… This Space for Rent.
At a Power Plant, three things are certain: Death, Taxes and Quittin’ Time. Nothing can stand in the way of any of these three activities. The only time Quittin’ time might change is on a Friday afternoon just before it is time to go home and you hear the Shift Supervisor paging one of the foremen or the Maintenance Supervisor. Then you know that Quittin’ time is likely to change at the spur of the moment. Not eliminated, but only delayed. I suppose we try doing that with Death as well. I have never tried delaying Taxes before.
After the downsizing at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1994, a lot of things had changed. As an electrician, I was now working on a cross-functional team with Charles Foster as my electrical bucket buddy.
The rest of my team had different skills. Some were Instrument and Controls, others were Welders, Machinists, Mechanics and then there was Alan Kramer, our foreman.
The new way we received work orders (we called them Maintenance Orders or MOs) was from our new Planners. There were two people responsible for figuring out our work for the week. That was Ben Davis and Tony Mena. I don’t have a photo of Tony, but here is Ben.
I have talked about Ben Davis in a number of past posts, as he was my mentor when I first became an electrician. I always looked up to him as a big brother. And, well, he treated me as a younger brother… but always with more respect than I deserved. Tony on the other hand was originally hired to be on the Testing Team when I was on the Labor Crew.
I still remember Monday, July 18, 1983 watching Tony Mena and the rest of the new Testers walking around the plant following Keith Hodges around like baby quail following their mother (at least that was the way Ron Luckey described them as we watched them from the back seat of the crew cab as we drove past them).
The men and woman on Labor Crew had felt passed over when the new testing team had been formed because no one on the labor crew had been considered for the new jobs even when we met the minimum requirements (which was to have any kind of college degree). So, even though it wasn’t fair to the new testing team, we had an immediate animosity toward them.
After the first downsizing in 1988, Scott Hubbard had moved to the electric shop and I quickly learned that not all testers were rotten, job stealing chumps. Actually, none of them were. They never had anything to do with who was chosen for the Testing team. That came from above. If you are interested, you can read the post: “‘Take a Note Jan’ Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. Scott and I became like brothers when he joined our team.
After the first downsizing, the testing team was reduced down to three people, Tony Mena, Richard Allen and Doug Black. I don’t have a picture of the first two, but I do have one of Doug:
After the second downsizing, the Testing team was eliminated. Scott had become an electrician seven year earlier, Doug Black moved into the Engineering Department. Richard Allen became an Instrument and Controls person and Tony Mena became a Planner along with Ben Davis. We had two other planners Glenn Rowland and Mark Fielder (who later traded with Mike Vogle to become a foreman). Glenn and Mark spent their time planning major outages, where Tony and Ben did more of the day-to-day stuff.
Tony Mena no longer had anyone to carpool with, so he asked me if he could carpool with Scott and I. So, we agreed. We told Tony that it was important to be on time, because we didn’t want to be late arriving at the plant, and we definitely didn’t want to be late going home (which was much more important). Tony agreed that he would be on time.
Quittin’ Time at the plant is a very important and orchestrated event. It begins a half hour earlier when everyone returns to the shop and cleans up and puts their tools away. Then they go into the foremen’s office and fills out their timecards for the day. This includes adding each of the maintenance orders we have worked on during the day and how many hours on each.
The next step is to grab your lunch box and go stand by the door to wait until the exact second that it is time to leave. When that happens, a steady stream of Power Plant Men pour into the parking lot, into their pickup trucks (and other vehicles) and head either north or south down Highway 177 toward their homes. Some stopping along the way for a beverage at the corner convenience store.
The Power Plant Men have Quittin’ Time down to a honed art form. Each stroke of the brush is carefully orchestrated. Scott and I went to perform our part of the ballet where the vehicles all backed out of their parking spaces in chaotic unison and quickly perform the three lines out the end of the single lane on the south side of the parking lot.
However, when we arrived in our car, Tony was no where to be found. As we received concerned looks from Randy Dailey and Jerry Day, as they pirouetted around us, wondering why we weren’t taking our turn in the Parking Lot Tango, all we could do was shrug our shoulders and watch as the dance went on without us.
Finally about 10 minutes past Quittin’ Time, Tony came walking out of the shop apologizing for being late. We told him that was all right as long as he didn’t make a habit out of it. We were pretty peeved that day because this meant that we had 10 less minutes that day to spend with our families.
We were even more peeved when the same thing happened the next day. We didn’t wait 10 minutes. After 5 minutes we went into the maintenance foremen’s office and found Tony still working away on his computer trying to finish up his work. We told him he had to leave right now! He said he hadn’t realized it was time to go.
Nothing is worse than a delayed Quittin’ Time when it isn’t for a legitimate reason. Tony didn’t have a wife and children at home so he didn’t feel the urgency that Scott and I felt. So, I figured I was going to have to do something about this. We weren’t going to tell Tony that he could no longer ride with us, because we knew he needed the company as much as we did, so I came up with a different plan.
The next day at lunch I wrote a program on the computer called “Quittin’ Time!” Here is how it worked:
It would load up on Tony’s computer when he booted it up, so he didn’t have a choice whether it ran or not. It showed up in the Task Bar at the bottom. It said: “Quittin’ Time in: 7:45:35” for example and it would count down each second. Then it would count down all day until Quittin’ Time. There was no visible way to turn it off (Power Plant Men had yet to learn about the Task Manager as this was Windows 3.1).
You could click on Quittin Time in the Task Bar and it would open up a small box in the middle of your computer with the time ticking down, but there was no red X in the corner to shut it down. There was only a minimize underscore that would put it back in the task bar.
I had added a small feature in the dialog window. In the lower right corner, there was a little slash sort of hidden in the corner. If you clicked on that, it opened another dialog box that let you set the actual time of day for “Quittin’ Time”. So, if you had to leave early, or later, you could adjust your Quittin’ Time.
Here was the clincher with the Quittin’ Time program. It was not enough to just show Tony that it was Quittin’ Time. This program had to force Tony to shut down and go home. So, when it was 15 minutes before Quittin’ Time, a Big Yellow Window would open up on top of any other work and would flash on and off that it was “15 minutes before Quittin’ Time! Time to Finish your Work!” Tony could close this window.
Then when it was 5 minutes to Quittin’ Time, another big yellow window would open up flashing 5 minutes before Quittin’ Time! Finish your work now!” and it would beep at you 5 times. Tony could close this window.
At one minute until Quittin’ Time, all heck broke loose on the computer. A big red window would open up and the computer would start beeping continually. The flashing Window could not be closed. It would say: “Less than One Minute To Quittin’ Time! Save all your Work!” The words would continually flash as well at the red background while counting down the seconds and it could not be stopped.
At “Quittin’ Time” The Red Box would say “QUITTIN’ TIME!” and the computer would lock up beeping continuously as loud as that little beeper(the internal speaker) could beep (this was a 386 PC). At that point, the only thing you could do was hit the power button and shut your computer off. I wish I had some screen shots to show you. Maybe I’ll find my old code and recreate it and take some and add them to this post later.
Needless to say, the first day I added this program to Tony’s computer, he didn’t heed the warnings. When the computer went crazy, he tried saving his work, but ended up losing a little of it before the computer completely locked up on him. He came out to the parking lot on time, however, he wasn’t in the greatest mood. We were. Scott and I were smiling. We were going to be home on time, and best yet, that day, we were included in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” being performed by the pickup trucks that day in the Parking Lot.
The best part of the Quittin’ Time program came later. After about a week, Tony (who now left work on time every day) asked me if I could add something to the Quittin’ Time program. He wanted to know if I could make it so that he would remember to eat lunch. He would get so involved in work that he would miss his lunch entirely. So, I added a “Lunch Time” Feature to the program as well. He could adjust his lunch time using the same option window that opened when you clicked on the little slash in the lower corner of the Quittin’ Time window.
When I added the Lunch Time feature, I also added an Internet Feature that would go out to Yahoo Stock Quotes and get the Daily Stock Quotes for all of our 401k Mutual Funds and our company stock and at 3:40pm CST would pop up a window with the day’s stocks, so you could see how the Mutual funds in your 401k did that day. — Nothing better than watching your retirement plan grow each day. Yahoo posted the Mutual Fund updates for the day around 3:30pm, so Tony would be the first person each day to get the latest Stock news for our Mutual Funds.
Tony Mena was known as Planner 4 later when we moved to SAP because that was the username he used. Ray Eberle used to say to me, “We always want to keep Planner 4 happy!” Later this year, I will go into various ways we kept Tony happy, or confused… or well… on his toes anyway.
Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you. In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant. It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit. Others found it funny. Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed. One person was totally surprised by the response (me).
January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day. Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question. He said something like, “Kevin. Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?” I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.
Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves. So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer. When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”. The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday. He is 48 years old today. Please wish him a Happy Birthday. The Birthday Phantom.”
It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!” and the body of the email had the happy birthday song, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Wayne. Happy Birthday to you. The Birthday Phantom.
So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin. Did you do this?” What could I say? So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?” I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.
Alan said, “Well. I just had to ask.” I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face. Something like this:
You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email. Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails. It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost). Charles Foster was my witness.
What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City. I think it was Ed Mayberry. Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.
While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important. I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.
The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”. As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line. Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time. Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail. I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.” Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.
I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question. I could tell he was upset with me. He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?” I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day. So both Charles and I looked confused.
I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private. Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire. Which I didn’t.
Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about. He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office. Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.
I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time. I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails. Alan accepted my explanation. Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.
So, fast forward to November 6, 1996. We were now using Outlook. That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.
I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day. I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”
Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person? Well. We don’t do anything now. Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”
After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born. I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that. So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.
It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer. Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.
The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day. If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.
The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list. We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things. If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.
Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day. If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on. If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.
There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it. First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct. So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.
Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997. So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff. This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.
As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been. Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.
For instance. A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom. David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom. I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?” David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?” Well. I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes. I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.” The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah. right).
Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails. Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.
Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from. Jim Cave told me that Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.
Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh! That’s a Wiley One!” I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).
I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee. Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-…. You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.
Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom. She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety. Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason. You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.
After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom. I told her I would look into it. I did look into it for about one second. Linda was turning 40 on Friday.
On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old. Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.
Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them. She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier. The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.
The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well. Yeah. The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day. Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29. In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.
Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“). Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.
The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor. She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29. She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it! Please wish her a Happy Birthday!” I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.
After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom. They were not able to find it. The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.
I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program. Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.
Power Plant Men cherish few things more than Friday afternoon when they head out to the parking lot and the weekend officially begins. Coolers full of ice, a quick trip to the convenience store for some beer and they are ready for the next two days. That’s why when a suggestion was made that the Power Plant Men might have to start working on Saturdays as well, the idea was not well received.
The Maintenance Department at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had downsized from 13 crews to 4 teams. We were struggling to figure out how to make that work. We had four teams and only seven electricians. Which meant that one team only had one electrician. Diane Brien was the lucky “one”. She was the only electrician on her team.
We were spread out so far already, how could we possibly cover an extra day of the week? Who (besides operators – who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) would want to give up their Saturday to work straight time at the Power Plant. I mean…. we all loved our jobs (for the most part), but this was asking a lot.
We had learned from the last two downsizings and the the Quality Process that when the company hired consultants, things were going to change. We were convinced that consultants were hired to take the heat off of upper management. They could just say, “Well…. This is what the Consultants told us would work best, so we’re cutting our staff in half.”
So, when consultants were hired for over $100,000 to figure out how we could work an “alternate work schedule”, we were suspicious. Any of us could sit around and put two and two together to figure out a way to work alternate work schedules. This led us to believe that this was another attempt to force us into something by saying, “The Consultants….. (not us)….” Bringing to mind the phrase from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi; “Many Bothans Died for This Information.”
Picture this lady telling the Power Plant Men how they were going to work on Saturdays and they were going to like it. The phrase “T’ain’t No Way!” comes to mind. Here is how the meeting went….
We were called to the main break room, which doubled as the main conference room, and tripled as the Men’s Club Gathering Sanctuary. The consultants were introduced to a room of silent, glaring, suspicious Power Plant Men types. We were told that they had been working on alternate work schedules that we might possibly want to consider. No matter what, they were not going to force anything on us. We were told that we would only go on an alternate work schedule if we voted and the majority were okay with it.
Power Plant Men chins began to jut out in defiance. The rattle of someone’s dentures came from the back of the room. A nearly unanimous vote of “No” was already decided by about 90% of the people going by the the body language of the men in the room.
The consultants continued by saying that they had three alternatives that they would like to run by us. The first one was to provide coverage 7 days of the week. I think everyone in the room knew that there were only 7 days in a week, and this meant that they wanted the four maintenance crews to work every day of the week. Including Sundays, since we figured that Sunday must be included in the 7 days, since we couldn’t think of 7 days without including Sundays.
Currently, Sundays were double time. If Sunday became a regular work day, then the only double time would be during the night. You can see the reason why management wanted to increase our regular coverage to the weekend. It would eliminate a large amount of overtime. This isn’t a bad idea when you are trying to figure out how to save money.
The consultants (I’m probably going to begin a lot of paragraphs with the words… The consultants… for obvious reasons) said that the benefit of working on Sundays was that every 4 weeks we would get 6 days off of work in a row! What? How does that work? They showed us how it worked, but the majority was not in favor of working Sundays.
I personally thought that if we had to work on Sundays, then I was probably going to be looking for a new job somewhere else. I knew operators did this, but this was something that they had accepted up front when they became operators. Operators are a special breed of workers that dedicate their lives to the plant. Maintenance crews, though they are equally loyal, are not willing to give up a regular work habit. Even though I worked Sundays when an emergency came up without question, this day was normally reserved for going to Church and spending the day at home with my family. So, this was never going to be a long term option for me.
The options to work on Sundays meant that there was only one day each week (Thursday) when all four of the teams would be working on the same day. That would be the day when we would have plant-wide meetings, like the Monthly (or had it moved to Quarterly) Safety meetings.
There were two options that included Sundays. Neither of them were acceptable to the Power Plant Men. The third option was to cover Saturday. The consultants showed us how we could cover Saturday as a normal work day and every four weeks we could have 5 days off in a row. How is it, you ask, can you cover one extra day and you have more days off?
The Consultant’s answer: Work 4-10s (four tens). That is, work four ten hour days each week. When you work ten hour days for four days, you still work the same 40 hours each week, only you have to show up at the plant for four days instead of 5. This means, you have one extra day each week where you don’t even have to go to work.
Think about this… We normally arrived at the plant at 8:00 and left at 4:30 (8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch). We were being asked to come in at 7:00 and leave at 5:30. Two extra hours each day and you only have to work 4 days. The company will not only be covering a Saturday now, but they would be covering 10 hours each day instead of just 8. The dentures rattled again in the back of the room, only this time it was Bill Green’s (our plant manager)…. he was salivating at the prospect of covering an extra 20 hours each week (2 extra hours each week day and 10 hours on Saturday) by just shuffling around the work schedule. That’s 50% more coverage!
Think about this some more….. I only had to do laundry for four days of coal and fly ash soaked clothes instead of five. I only had to drive the 30 miles to the plant and the 30 miles back, four times each week instead of five. That reduces my gas by 20%. It also gives me an extra hour each week when I don’t have to drive to and from work… this comes out to 48 extra hours free each year (after subtracting vacation) for just not having to drive to work five times each week. More than an extra week’s worth of vacation. saved in driving time alone. I’ll tell you some more benefits after I show you how this worked….
The consultants explained the 4 – 10s covering a Saturday with four crews like this….. We worked on a four week cycle. Each week, each team was on a different week in the cycle. We all worked on Wednesday and Thursday. The rest of the days, there were less than 4 teams working… it worked like this….
If you are working on week 3 (Monday thru Thursday), after Thursday you don’t go back to work until next Wednesday! Five days off in a row without using any vacation!
Crazy huh? The only catch was that you had to work on a Saturday once every four weeks. But think about this…. (I seem to enjoy saying that in this post…. “think about this…”) I think it’s because the first thought is that this is dumb. Why would I want to work two extra hours each day? Why would I want to give up one of my Saturdays? Ok… while you’re thinking about that, I’ll move on to the next paragraph…
I suppose you realized by now that there are 13 Saturdays that each person would work in a 52 week year when you work a Saturday once every four weeks. Thinking about it that way isn’t so bad. Especially since the Power Plant Men had at least four weeks vacation (160 hours) by this time since the majority of the Power plant Men had been there for at least 10 years. Those with 20 years had 5 weeks vacation (200 hours). My fellow electrician Charles Foster said that to me as we were going back to work…. “I can just take vacation every time we have to work on Saturday.” — We’ll see….
With 10 hour days, that meant that if you have 4 weeks vacation, then you have 16 days off. You could take your Saturday off for vacation for the entire year, giving you 6 days off in a row every 4 weeks using only 10 hours of vacation, and you can avoid having to work any Saturdays (if that’s really what you want).
The Power Plant Men decided to give it a try to see how we liked it for a few months. The majority of us had mixed feelings about this new work schedule. The other thought in our mind was, “We paid over $100,000 for someone to come up with this? Maybe we’re in the wrong line of work.”
One problem with this plan is that we had to have an alternate carpooling schedule. Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner and I were not all on the same teams. So, we had to figure out when we were working on the same days and try to remember who drove the last time we had that particular configuration of carpoolers in order to figure out whose turn it was to drive. We figured something out that seemed to work… there were just a few times when the neighbors would hear… “No, it’s my turn! No! It’s mine! Remember last Friday? But that was you and Scott! No! I have it right here in my notes! Fred drove, we talked about Deer Stands and types of feeders. I nodded my head a lot.”
The first Saturday Charles Foster and I showed up to work, we noticed a great benefit right away. Our team was the only team working in the Maintenance Shop. That meant that we had all the trucks to ourselves! No fighting over truck keys! We didn’t have to wait in line at the tool room. No waiting around for Clearances on the equipment. We had full reign over the shop. We also had Sue Schritter go to Ponca City to pick up parts shortly before lunch so that she could bring back Pizza for us! (ok. yes. we were bribed with Pizza) Courtesy of our foreman, Alan Kramer:
We really enjoyed working on Saturday. It turned out to be the best day to work. No management stalk… um… walking around watching us from around corners…. No meetings… Just working away without interruption. We would complete a lot of work on Saturdays.
Another benefit that I don’t think was expected was a big reduction in Sick Leave. I no longer had to take off time to go to the doctor or the dentist. I now had days off during the week, so I would just schedule doctor appointments when I was not working.
Holidays were handled two ways. You still only had 8 hours off for a holiday instead of 10, so you had to work around that. When there was a holiday, you could either work four 8 hour days (instead of 10) that week and take off the holiday just as you normally would, or you could take off 8 hours just on the holiday, and either use 2 hours of vacation or come into work for 2 hours (2 hours vacation made the most sense).
When it was all said and done, the Power Plant Men stayed on 4-10s working every fourth Saturday at our plant. Other plants were able to decide on their own work schedules. I know one of the other plants decided they didn’t want to change. They still liked driving to work five days each week instead of four. They liked cleaning five days worth of dirty clothes each week instead of four. They liked having two days off each week instead of an average of three days. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked.
This brings to mind a book that I read once after reading another book recommended by Toby O’Brien. Toby gave me a book once called “One Minute Manager”.
One of the authors wrote another book called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. I encourage everyone to read this:
Reading books like these are a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant for boo-coos just to make changes. You just have “Power Plant Reading Time” during the morning meeting and read a chapter from this little book.