I used to work in a sweatshop-like factory that made electrical appliances for houses. I worked my way from boxing things up and running them into the warehouse to running the company’s automated painting department.
The company started out with a handful of old school salesmen becoming its managers. One of the managers was an autocratic, boozy-looking but somewhat shrewd guy named Bob. Bob ran most of the manufacturing, supply and inventory chain. The company didn’t, as yet, have a formal CEO-type manager – just the founder/owner, rather isolated from day-to-day operations, so Bob, having had nearly every feather in his cap, ruled the roost. You always heard people say ‘Bob said,’ etc. Once, when Bob came back from a vacation with a beard, nearly all the middle managers started growing out their beards. When Bob shaved it off, everyone followed suit. It was surreal. It was the cult of Bob. There were rumors that the reason there were so many female floor supervisors because Bob could control them or he had slept with them – depending on who you talked too.
Eventually, when the company transformed from a small family-owned firm to a more traditional CEO structure, Bob’s managerial style stuck out like a sore thumb. There was an effort to insert a middle manager between Bob and the process of manufacturing, with Bob spending more time on sales, marketing, budgets, etc.
One such hire was a younger man who had a business degree. He was also fresh out of the National Guard. He was a short, kind of nerdy looking guy, really ambitious and cocksure.
He also had the misfortune of sharing the same name as Bob. This meant everyone referred to him as Little Bob. From there on, it was an uphill battle for him. He was really in a precarious spot. He had no support from Big Bob, since the concept of a floor manager was designed to limit his power. He had no support from floor supervisors, since they resented being told how to do their jobs by someone with little or no experience. It didn’t help that Little Bob’s attitude was one of arrogance and being all-knowing, despite a lack of any apparent background in manufacturing, nor was it him frequently referring to himself as “the 90-day wonder” (he claimed people called him that due to his ability to turn production problems around).
Eventually, Little Bob was instructed to focus his amazing powers on my department – the paint shop – since it was a long-time bottleneck of production and rework. With two shifts, we were just barely able to keep the assembly lines supplied with painted parts for production. The problem was, with more lean assembly – the assembly lines only producing what was on order from distributors – meant that we would have to make the automated painting line change paint colors more frequently, meaning lots of downtime to clean out the machinery, etc. This couldn’t keep up with assembly’s demand for our three or four custom colors, whereas before, we would run huge lots of each of them and stack them in inventory. The goal of leaner, ‘just in time’ manufacturing was to have no inventory of parts whatsoever. So, we tried our best to adapt, but we were standing out like a sore thumb in the big workflow picture and we knew it.
Little Bob’s help wasn’t appreciated, though. He knew everything and knew everything we did was wrong. He had us doing things we tried years ago, wasting a lot of time and labor. He said he just wanted to prove things to him and see them with his own eyes. One of the problems we were having was with the paint being supplied by a big company. We had a good relationship with the company, even though they were a giant global chemical conglomerate. It helped that we literally bought tons of their product a year. They sent a chemist/product specialist to come work with us to solve the problem. She was young woman named Missy who had no compunctions about putting on a tyvek bunny suit in the 120+ degree paintshop and working with us to try to solve the problem. She drove Little Bob nuts. He would try his best to be about three feet away from Missy at all times. He’d come rushing over to me to ask what this gadget or this machine did or how it worked and go running back to show her how knowledgeable he was. It was pretty funny. The company sent her on a somewhat regular basis because our facility was at the time pretty state-of-the-art and the problems were somewhat perplexing for even them.
Eventually, Little Bob started changing his look. He used to wear really square slacks and dull polo shirts and he still had Army-issued (real) nerd glasses. He started wearing flashy dress shirts and fashionable jeans. He got contact lenses and started growing out his hair and stopped combing it into a lacquered-down Devo doo. We all thought he was wearing shoe lifts but we weren’t sure. By the time they flew Missy out again, he made plans for us to take her out to dinner, to ‘pick her brain’ as he put it. We ended up going to The Olive Garden. Little Bob was a total ass, dissing his wife, who naturally wasn’t there, the implication being that their marriage wasn’t solid. Missy would talk to the rest of us about chemistry, paint, problems with temperature, etc. and Bob would interject completely stupid, unrelated things. He made the attempt at driving a wedge in by trying to start the ‘where’d you go to college’ routine, when almost all of us at the dinner were blue collar sweathogs. Another highlight was when our food arrive, Bob actually did the kiss his fingertips and do that ‘MWAA! Just like my mama would make‘ thing, seriously. At The Olive Garden (he was supposed to be part Italian, which is why we went there, apparently). It was pretty funny. At one point – probably exhausting all his witty repartee and sensing he was running out of time, Bob sighed heavily and announced that he and his wife were probably going to separate – apropos of absolutely nothing we were talking about. Missy was really professional yet personable. She was three thousand miles from the home office and her home. The last thing she needed was this sawed-off little runt making awkward passes at her. People talked about Little Bob’s dinner theater performance for a long time.
Then one day, out of the blue, I came in to work and my boss Don came running up to me excitedly. He told me Little Bob had been let go. We worked the night shift, so we missed all of it. We had to go to his office to see for ourselves. His desk and shelves were empty. Only his stupid, corny motivation posters were there. For some reason, I distinctly remember that he had a year-at-a-glance poster hung on his office that only had everyone’s birthday on it, which I thought was really weird. My boss was beside himself with glee. Don was a sixty-year-old guy descended from sub-literate sheep farmers from Idaho. He looked like Jim Backus playing C. Everett Coop. Despite our differences, I liked the old guy. But that day, in Little Bob’s tiny ex-office, I saw Don do this weird little jug on the carpet that was both hilarious and somewhat unsettling. I was glad he was gone but not that glad. I somehow knew that he would just be one shitty boss in an endless chain of hapless bozos who had the fortune to be stuck in charge of a bunch of us sweathogs.
Then Don noted that Little Bob’s tenure had been just a little over three months. Maybe that’s what he meant by ’90 day wonder’.