'What do you want me to do?'

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, March 5, 2012

One of the things that must frustrate many railroad managers and their rank and file is the question posed in the title atop this essay: Should a manager want workers to think big like he or she does? Or is that too much to expect? At the other end, the worker bees must wonder what is expected of them. Are they supposed to love their company and their jobs?

I’ve been watching these past few days a 10-DVD recording of a Hunter Camp. Hunter Harrison, now the retired CEO of Canadian National Railway, conducted many of these several-day seminars to inculcate in his junior managers his beliefs and values — in essence, what he expected from them. In this soliloquy, Harrison answers that question in the title. I want to share it with you, word for word. It is reflective of the thinking of this colorful railroader. As he speaks, Hunter occasionally picks up a book he wrote, “How We Work & Why,” which describes his concept of "precision scheduled railroading" and its five guiding principles.

“In my career, when I was first taught, we used to say we move cars, move paper, control costs, and develop people. But I never went out to an engineman and said, do know what we’re all about?  We are trying to move cars, move paper, control costs, and develop people. The engineman would say I don’t care, Hunter. I don’t have anything to do with developing people. I’m not a paper mover. It’s your job to control the costs. What do you want me to do? I want you to run that engine effectively. You run that engine as fast as you can within the rules, and buddy, you’ve done the job. You’re the man!

“It would do no good for me to say, we’ve got to develop people. Here’s this old engineer, 65 years old, saying what do you want me to do about developing people?  We’re not asking you [Harrison’s audience] to sell to people to whom it doesn’t really matter. Or when that’s not their role. There’s some people who care, and if they want to know what the company is about, what our strategy is, and want to read the book, more power to them. But if they say I don’t really understand the financial stuff and I don’t understand operating ratios and what do you want me to do? I want everybody to do their job. If you’re a switchman, be a good switchman. If you’re a heavy duty mechanic, be a good mechanic. If you’re a car man, be a good car man. And if you are, you’re making us successful.

“Don’t be frustrated. If you try to sell this [pats his book] at the health and safety committee meeting that we’re the all-American, all-Canadian company, the greatest thing there is and they say boo, don’t worry about it. Don’t get frustrated trying to force down peoples’ throats [our five guiding] principles. A lot of people in management  don’t give a hoot about it. Making the train and engine service people and the car people understand cost control is not what we’re about. The important thing is when the car man in Memphis says, what can I do? You do your job right, you inspect those cars effectively and efficiently, that’s all I can ask you to do. I can’t ask you as a car man to develop people. You can do your small part. But I think it’s not bad to say, if you’re interested, here’s what this company is about [picking up his book]. Somebody may read it and say hey, that’s good stuff. Someone else says I think that’s bullshit. That’s okay. Life goes on. We all have varying opinions.

“Talk to people about it. I’m not trying to brainwash anybody. I happen to be the chief now. I think it [the book] is important. If 50% of the people get it, it’s better than if only 40% of the people get it. The more success we have, the more people will start to take notice and see what we’re doing. At the same time, we have to be careful and understand how we got to where we are, not focusing too much on reading our press clippings, thinking we’re the greatest and all that. Because that breeds issues. People waiting to see you trip. Then they say gotcha!

“That goes with the territory. There are people [holding up his book] who will say chapter nine says this and now you’re doing that. If they want it, fine. If they don’t. . . . One of them told me that it’s just corporate bullshit. I said yup, it is, now get your butt on the engine and run it quickly or you’ll find out about corporate bullshit.”

Now you know why E. Hunter Harrison is either loved or hated. — Fred W. Frailey

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