This is the page that everyone heads to when I write something they don’t agree with – especially if they’re cyclists – to try and dig some dirt! Remember: it’s my blog. If you don’t like it, tough. Just hit the BACK button and go play somewhere else.
I started my working life in the manufacturing industry. I graduated as a chemist (not the kind who sells aspirin, but the kind who made the aspirin). But after years of having to answer to increasingly idiotic policies, my patience was wearing thinner by the year. It really started to go downhill in the early 90s with the introduction of ‘Teamworking’ (the capital is important). Everyone was behaving as if working together was brand new, that no one had ever done it before, and ignored the fact the company had become a £5 billion one in spite of this ‘new’ idea.
Up until Teamworking, individual technical expertise had been highly valued, and it was how I got to where I was. After Teamworking, expertise meant nothing, and your motivation took a major hit. I mean, I’d spent my entire life studying, passing exams, becoming good at things in my specialist fields, only to be told my qualifications and skills meant nothing after all, and it was the shop floor staff – people who had dropped out of education before doing any exams at all – who held all the skills.
It really did happen like that. I broke through into management and my career path was upwards. In my case, it was technical management, and I was bloody good at it. But within 18 months, Teamworking got brought in on the back of a dirty dump truck, ripped up the goalposts, and flung them everywhere!
Shop floor staff were being awarded NVQ certificates just for turning up to work. The company touted these NVQs as being ‘equivalent to ‘A’ levels’ (the exact phrase used), and even now I can see in my mind the precise meeting where that was stated. These NVQs were in such classical subjects as ‘Packing Line Operator’ and ‘Manufacturing Operative’, and it was impossible to fail them. People who couldn’t write their names would be assessed again and again until they passed. If someone ‘failed’ one attempt (and they did lots), an NVQ Assessor had to make sure they didn’t next time. Naturally, the assessor had to know what was required in the job being assessed, and so managers such as myself were forced to be those assessors. You were held responsible for your staff’s performance in NVQ assessments, since it was vital to show higher management that Teamworking was working really, really, really well. The paperwork necessary to administer NVQs was a nightmare, and you had a chain of bureaucracy involving NVQ candidate, NVQ Assessor, NVQ Assessor’s Assessor, and I think there was another assessor above that. I vividly remember that none of the assessment sheets required any words to be written on them. They were just pages of tick boxes that got filed away and were never checked or looked at again, and I know with near certainty that some department ‘assessors’ just lied when their staff were too dumb to pass, and passed them anyway.
In practical terms, there would be cream cakes and (in summer) ice creams all round in specific departments for the inanest of ‘achievements’. In many cases, the department engineers (who were there to fix machines when they broke down) were given cream cakes for… fixing machines which had broken down. And I was made aware that in at least one case they had also purposely broken the machine in order to get overtime in order to fix it. Other cases saw cream cakes handed out for staff completing routine jobs that they were paid to do anyway, and one female manager of an insular pharmacy-based department made a regular habit of using these treats to buy staff loyalty. She gained brownie points with senior management for being a ‘team player’ as a result, yet her bloody department made almost daily processing and labelling errors on multiple products (all of which were withheld from the Medicines Agency by the Quality Control Department on a routine basis). It quickly got to the point where staff in other departments were demanding these treats because they had friends in the department in question, and had heard about it. They refused to work properly if they didn’t get them, and no one in management (apart from me) could see the ridiculousness of the situation that had been created.
Teamworking as it was applied by my company assumed that all knowledge lay with the proles, with apologies to George Orwell for that reference. They genuinely assumed that some near-to-retirement guy who had been mopping out the toilets for the last 20 years in between bouts of chain-smoking in the canteen or outside (or in the toilets in question) on the despatch docks must be an expert in hygiene, sanitation, microbiology, and washroom design. And he’d be awarded an NVQ for it.
Workplace NVQs were simply not worth the paper they were written on. Someone who’d been given one was no different to before – they’d merely been recognised for just being whatever they were already. I mean, I come from an era where in order to pass your Maths ‘O’ Level you actually needed to be able to do maths. And to get an English ‘O’ Level you needed to be able to write and spell. If you couldn’t meet those requirements, you failed. And yet Teamworking was elevating school dropouts who couldn’t do any of that well above University-trained graduates in terms of perceived academic achievement – by handing out alleged ‘A’ Levels to every one of them.
Under Teamworking managers became ‘facilitators’ overnight (when they weren’t NVQ-assessing, of course). Ironically, the über-facilitators who were driving it, and who reported to senior management, were appointed from surplus manager stock. This surplus stock came about due to the elevation of previous foremen and supervisors to management roles, typically into departments where the previous manager had been an autocratic asshole. Those displaced managers had always been total arseholes whoever they dealt with, but now their characters had been officially (if surreptitiously) acknowledged. Overnight they were assigned sinecure positions until they could be dealt with. One of those managers in particular, who I will never forget, was the most arrogant prick imaginable while he managed one of the manufacturing departments. He had been deemed wholly unsuitable to deal with Teamworking at the sharp end (I was actually told that in as many words), but since he’d been head-hunted in the first place, sacking him was obviously not an option. So – with the unfathomable logic the company had now adopted – he became the über-über-facilitator, responsible for the Teamworking rollout to all departments. I vividly remember how – on his first day (and it was a very specific day when it all began) in my department – he turned up in cargo shorts and sandals, instead of his normal shirt and tie (everyone who knew him laughed at the dramatic – and very dramatised – change).
Teamworking was disastrous as far as our customers were concerned. We produced medicinal products, and whereas the job prior to Teamworking was focused on the customers and their products (even if we weren’t too good at it), afterwards all that mattered was making Teamworking look good for senior management. The customers, their products, and the order arrears we’d created and continued to add to actually got in the way of that. In the 15 or so years I endured it, that didn’t change – Teamworking came first, and the customer second (if they were lucky).
I used to call it Teamworking®, which didn’t go down too well. Nor did the fact that I always had a Dilbert book on my desk. Basically, they’d bought a big tub of Teamworking® off a shelf and shovelled it in without understanding any of it. Large wall posters typified by some of the images I’ve included here suddenly adorned offices and meeting rooms. Managers were falling over themselves to buy these things, which ran to at least £50 a time without a frame, and which still make me want to vomit whenever I see them now. It’s incredible to think that the annual job appraisals of these idiots were significantly influenced by the fact they had spent lots of money on a Teamworking picture. I mean, how is a billboard-sized image of eight penguins walking in a line across the ice going to turn a company’s finances around? But it was enough for these clowns to demonstrate how big a Team Player they were. It was really that superficial, but the reality for the company was totally different.
As the end neared, more and more of your time was being taken up with Teamworking issues. It was meeting after meeting after meeting, and woe betide you if you skipped one to do actual work for a customer. Believe me, it did count against you, and was guaranteed to come up in your own appraisal. The shop floor could down tools anytime they felt like it to hold a meeting of their own. The term ‘team meeting’ for the shop floor became the new version of the ‘union meeting’ – the union cottoned on and exploited it, realising that management had to allow it, otherwise they’d be hypocrites under the Teamworking code of ethics. These meetings could be called at any time. On one occasion, a customer had travelled the length of the country to watch the process as their product was manufactured for the first time. We’d be making at least twenty such batches a year, each one earning us over £50,000. It was both time- and temperature sensitive, and it was 7.30pm – with the factory closing at 10pm. And the shop floor disappeared for a meeting! In the end, the customer gave reluctant approval for it to go back in the fridge overnight – something which had not been validated – to finish off in the morning.
For a while, shop floor staff were even allowed to order refreshments for their meetings, until someone realised how much it was costing and put a stop to it (the staff were taking doggie bags of the stuff home). The knock-on effect was that when I had a customer in – in one case, from the USA to discuss a new contract – the usual decent spread had been replaced with a brown paper bag with a pack of plain chiller cabinet sandwiches, a packet of crisps, and a plastic carton of some juice with a red plastic straw stuck on the side. It was a cheap ‘meal-deal’. And it was embarrassing.
The meetings just went on and on. My final department had weekly Team Meetings that you weren’t allowed to miss. The two manufacturing departments we were connected with had daily Team Meetings that someone from my department had to attend, and bigger weekly Team Meetings that were a collective of the daily ones, which someone from my department also had to attend. Our designated attendee was not allowed to miss any of these (if he did, it filtered straight back and came up at his annual appraisal). Then there were corporate level Team Meetings, which were still as autocratic as ever, because they were run by executive-level management for whom everyday Teamworking didn’t apply, and with whom no lesser mortal could speak to in normal language (any interaction with them was similar to meeting the King). These corporate-level meetings culminated in periodic Presentations to Staff that you also weren’t allowed to miss (and which inevitably involved shutting the factory down for a day). All of this was on top of the proper meetings that came about from day-to-day issues, and which were almost impossible to schedule because all the meeting rooms were permanently booked because of all the Teamworking ones, and at least some of the people you needed would be tied up in those anyway. It was an absolute shambles.
A lot of time was spent on the inanest projects. For example, in one case – and after months and months of meetings – one Teamworking group (facilitators and shop floor staff) decided that the company font, which had hitherto been the perfectly business-like and professional looking Times New Roman, was being changed to Comic Sans. Our customers, some of whom were global Blue Chips, went ballistic, because their product licences depended on having up-to-date copies of all our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) filed in them. If any changed, they’d have to notify the authorities – and yet here we were updating all the SOPs at once – just to change the bloody font. And the Comic Sans font, at that. More than one client said Comic Sans ‘wasn’t very professional’, and they were right. It was one of the stupidest ideas ever.
Another favoured project was the Timesheet Redesign. It became popular after the first department to do it got rave comments from senior management at the Team Meeting where they presented it, and you could immediately see the penny drop in all the other middle managers’ minds who hadn’t yet done it who were in the meeting. What made it so desirable to these clowns was that ‘everyone in the Packing department had been involved in designing it’ – I can see the Facilitator holding it up and saying that even now. It was Teamworking® on steroids to these people, and I absolutely knew that my ineffectual manager was going to be determined to get in on it and maybe earn some praise for himself.
Let’s face it. Any large company with multiple manufacturing departments would sensibly be standardising on timesheets and aiming to keep them as simple as possible, because all they need to do is record who did what, and for how long. Once Teamworking® came along, every department set about trying to design THE timesheet to beat all other timesheets. The double-sided A3 thing (the old ones were often single sided A4) held up in that first meeting had more signature boxes on it than a Go board. It tried to record activities in too much detail, and it slowed down the workflow for Finance who were not familiar with it, had to go through it with a magnifying glass, and who relished sending it back because of missing signatures. The next problem was that every timesheet designed by other departments had different boxes on it, and they were in different positions on the sheet. This made it even harder for Finance, who could no longer riffle through a stack of papers, but instead had to spend time on each one. When my own department at the time created theirs, I spent the next two years chasing it up every week because the shop floor (who’d designed it) couldn’t fill the bloody thing in properly and it kept getting sent back. It was basically a finger-painted splodge you’d stick on the fridge in the kitchen because one of your kids has done it.
And I’ll never forget the SOP for ‘How to Walk Up and Down Stairs’. You could actually get in trouble if you walked up on the right side (or middle) instead of the left (and vice versa going down) without holding the rail once that thing went live. Once again, in my mind’s eye I can see (and hear) the shrieking voice of the harridan (the PA to a director) who’d been involved in writing it standing on the top balcony of the stairwell, screeching ‘Remember the SOP! Remember the SOP!’ one day as we evacuated for a fire drill.
As a result of all of this crap, we were a year or more behind on customer orders. In one case, that was resolved simply by a middle manager telling the customer we were pulling out of making their product within 6 months, when less than 2 years earlier the same middle manager had secured the contract by undercutting the price so much, we weren’t making any profit on it in the first place. It was shockingly unprofessional.
To cut a long story short, customers were being taken for a ride, and I was getting more and more frustrated by the incompetence of the company. So, I started keeping a blog, even before the word ‘blog’ had been coined. It was completely anonymous and contained no identifiable privileged information (I was careful of that), but one of my colleagues knew I was doing it. One day he saw something he didn’t like and reported it. I had made the mistake of editing it using a works computer one time. So, I was sacked for it.
It was probably the best thing that damned company and those morons I reported to (and worked with) ever did for me.
I vowed never to work for anyone ever again. I’d always wanted to teach, and about two days after I was suspended, I saw an ad about driving instructor training in the local newspaper. I applied for it and had been accepted even before the appeal hearing (a laughable charade in front of a senior manager who had never even looked at me before, so didn’t know me). I now spend my days teaching people something they want to learn.
Becoming a driving instructor is the best thing I ever did.
Is it a good job? For me, yes. It’s a joy to teach people who want to learn, and it’s even better when they pass. For many, passing their driving test is a gateway to the rest of their lives. For others, it’s the difference between having a job or being on the dole.
Is it an easy job? Well, I think so, but it wouldn’t be for everyone. If the only attraction is those ‘earn lots of money’ adverts, then it probably isn’t. You need to be able to stand on your own two feet both during and after training. Failing the three qualifying tests is far more likely than passing them – arguably, less than 10% of those who start training become ADIs.
Can you make a living out of it? I have. After I qualified, I was covering all my personal and business expenses within five weeks, and I’ve never looked back. There was a blip during the recession back in 2009/10, and there’s been a huge blip in 2020/21 for COVID-related reasons, but the rest of the time I have been busy and well into profit.
Why don’t people succeed at it? Two reasons.
- they’re not cut out for it
- they expect too much return on too little effort.
It takes time to build up the pupil base, and one way or another that costs money. You simply can’t build a business – any business – on 9-5 hours and five-day weeks. And you need to think with a business head on at all times.
Is work guaranteed? Absolutely not! You can’t sit back and relax. My business could easily go under if I don’t maintain work levels in normal times. Fortunately, the SEISS grant and a private pension which has since kicked in helped during the COVID period. But if instructing is your only source of income you need plenty of work, and you need to rake in enough money to cover your overheads and personal commitments.
The Blog is just a collection of my own thoughts, opinions, and interests. The world is full of idiots like the ones I had to work for (and with), and much of what I put on here deals with these types.
Anyone can write a blog, and this one is mine. People don’t have to read it, but to those of you who do and who enjoy it: you’re welcome. To those who don’t enjoy it: tough. Use the back button and go somewhere else. I don’t have comments enabled because on the rare occasions I’ve done so I have immediately been spammed with profanity and porn. The inability to comment used to drive some long-since defunct forums apoplectic with with rage, because they couldn’t troll me the way they did their peers.
One or two have attempted to vent their frustrations at not being able to comment by sending abusive messages via the contact form. I welcome constructive comments and suggestions and I like to include such comments from readers whenever I can. However, the form logs user ip addresses and ISPs (amongst other things), and I have no hesitation in reporting anyone who abuses it (as Steve in Great Malvern, with the i.p. address 126.96.36.199 who was with Sky broadband discovered some years ago). Oh, and if you do ask me a question, for Christ’s sake acknowledge my reply – it’s a little thing called courtesy.
A version of the blog used to be published in ADI News (while it was still a glossy mag).
One more thing. I don’t care if people use the information on this site, but I draw the line at stealing it. A few years ago, I issued a ‘cease and desist, or at least link to the source’ request to a driving school website which had lifted one of my longer articles and tried to pass it off as their own. The things is, plagiarism sticks out like a sore thumb at the best of times, but in an industry where a large proportion of the members have only basic literacy and technology skills, when something I’ve written is inserted into something they’ve written, you tend to be able to see the join.