A (Self-Managed) Place in the California Sun

The other week, I delivered some training to a group of Morning Star colleagues at the California Sun harvesting facility in College City, California (oddly named, since there is no college in College City, and its 290 souls hardly qualify it as a city). There are about twenty-two self-managed colleagues working there, performing the vital work of repairing and maintaining tomato harvesting equipment and training equipment drivers.

After the training (which went very well thanks to a fantastic Spanish translator and educator named Georgina), my location contact, Celia, asked me if I would like a tour of the facilities.

Having a bit of time available, I enthusiastically accepted her offer. We walked to the equipment receiving area and saw where mechanics disassemble the harvesters. We then looked around the building where talented mechanics repair and rebuild the giant machines. Finally, we walked to the large covered warehouse where the machines are stored and readied for use. The building swarmed with mechanics putting the finishing touches on their work prior to the busy harvest season.

As I was admiring one particular harvester machine, a gigantic John Deere tractor-harvester combination, Celia asked if I would like to see the machine up close. I agreed. She called over her colleague Robert, who proceeded to give me an extremely detailed tour of the harvester, pointing out all its features and options. I made an effort to understand the technology, but possessing barely enough mechanical understanding to operate a toaster, I was at a bit of a disadvantage.

Celia then asked me: “Would you like to get in the cab?” Having no reason to object, I clambered up the short but steep ladder to the cab and poked my head inside. Robert, who was seated at the controls, began to show me how highly automated the harvester was, and how it was relatively simple to operate in air-conditioned comfort. It was very impressive. Celia then asked: “Would you like to see it run?” Again, having no reason not to see it run, I nodded, and Robert started up the machine. The noise reverberated throughout the building (we were still indoors). I gained an instant appreciation for the power and capacity of these towering sentinels of the harvest.

After appreciating the giant green John Deere combo, I noticed another nearby machine that consisted of one part instead of two. It was painted red and white. Celia asked: “Would you like to see the red harvester?” Knowing by now that objection would be futile, I nodded, and Robert clambered down from the John Deere and began comparing and contrasting the combination Deere with the single-unit red machine. As before, he pointed out all the bells and whistles on the unit. No museum docent could have done a better job or taken more pride in a displayed artifact. Celia again asked him to start it up for my benefit, but this machine wasn’t quite ready for firing on this day.  I thanked Robert profusely for his generosity of time and teaching.

Thinking I was released for the day, Celia asked if I would like to see how they do the harvester and truck driver training in the field. By this point, I was prepared to camp there overnight if that’s what it took to view the full scope of the operation.  While Celia retrieved a potted tomato plant for me (a gift for guests!) we drove our cars about a quarter of a mile to the driver training area.

A note about Celia. She started working as a seasonal truck dispatcher in 2006, and worked her way into a full-time administrative role with Morning Star affiliate Cal Sun in 2012–a very important California agricultural company. She now handles significant human resources and administrative responsibilities with large financial consequences. Her story is that of a bona fide successful businesswoman. The agility with which she handles the resources and people at her location, and the respect others accord her, is inspiring.

While watching a newly-hired driver practice moving a unitary harvester up and down the furrows, Celia asked if I would like to see the harvester practice with a truck and set of trailers (during real operations, as harvesters pull fruit from the fields, a separate truck/trailer combination moves slowly alongside, filling up the trailers for hauling to the factory for processing).  Glancing at my watch (I had to be in Clearlake for an early dinner that night), I agreed. Celia called over her training colleague, Cano, and asked him to provide a demonstration. Cano spoke briefly to the new harvester driver and another truck driver, and asked them to show me how synchronicity happens in the field. Like a pair of performance artists on “Dancing With The Stars”, the two drivers choreographed the movements of their giant machines in perfect harmony, thundering down the field in a powerful display of synchronized automation. It was…breathtaking.

I wasn’t prepared for Celia’s next question: “Would you like to ride on the harvester?” At this point, she probably couldn’t have stopped me if she wanted to. I climbed the steep ladder of the red harvester cab. The driver warned me, wisely, to watch my head in the short space available, and to hang on tight. And away we went, the harvester charging up the field, the truck rolling alongside, perfectly timed. It was a hot day, and windy, and dusty. I was wearing a sport coat and nice shoes. But I didn’t care. As I held onto the cab for dear life, the dust and wind rushing across my face, I felt as alive and carefree as Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. Hoping, of course, for a somewhat better ending.

Alas, the demonstration eventually came to an end, and I had miles to go before sleeping. I thanked my gracious hosts and bade the group farewell.

As I thought about the day, several lessons came to mind.

First, the machinery that this group handles is big and complex. The cognitive content of their jobs is phenomenal. They can see the results of their work right away—instant feedback. A machine or part either works properly, or it doesn’t. There may be more than one cubicle-dweller who would gladly trade places with them.

Second, everyone working there was HAPPY. REALLY, REALLY HAPPY. It’s just cool to see so many people that love their work.

Third, the entire group is self-managed. There are no titles, no bosses, and no command authority. There is only work, and people to perform work. And teamwork. Beautiful teamwork.

Fourthly, everyone is really motivated to achieve EXCELLENCE. The Gallup organization surveys employee engagement. At this workplace, engagement could not possibly be any higher.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every workplace were this great?

Feel the thunder:

Harvesting Tomatoes 2015

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