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  • Brendan Stec

I just work here

Jersey Mike's assembly line—Going above and beyond—Gawande's impact

Modern Times (1936) starring Charlie Chaplin

The Assembly Line

A few weeks ago, I stopped at the Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop in 30th Street station to grab some dinner before my train.

There were three workers on the sandwich assembly line:

  1. The meat slicer

  2. The sandwich assembler

  3. The cashier

After ordering, I hungrily watched my sandwich slide along the counter, passing efficiently though the workers’ hands. After the assembler finished adding the veggies, cheese and Sriracha, she wrapped the sandwich, taped it up and passed it over to the cashier for him to bag it and add the napkins.

But the cashier was busy in the back after he rung me up earlier. So I watched my sandwich sit next to the cash register behind a glass wall for 3 minutes while the slicer and assembler continued serving the customers behind me.

I didn’t mind waiting (I could’ve erupted into an entitled-consultant-with-Amtrak-status rage if I did). But I thought it was interesting that the assembler didn’t spend the few extra seconds to bag the sandwich herself and simply hand it to me.

As defined by the strict criteria of the assembly line, though, taking those few additional steps were not within the scope of her job. She was trained to only focus on assembling the sandwich. That’s how (and why) assembly lines work.

That’s how, as Adam Smith showed us in the 18th century, you can manufacture roughly 2000 times (!!!) as many pins if each worker just specializes in assembling one part of the pin instead of assembling the entire pin itself. Don’t hand him the sandwich!

300 years later, the assembly line has generated trillions of dollars in wealth. It’s made production faster and easier. But it’s everywhere now, I think often unintentionally creating a culture of obedient direction-following in many of our schools and companies.

But as my experience at the sandwich shop shows, it’s not always enough to merely show-up on time and do what you’re told. Customers and clients have higher expectations and shorter attention spans now than ever before. And labor competition, thanks to globalization, has never been stiffer.

The Linchpin

There is now a big opportunity for those who can break out of the assembly-line-obedience-mindset and become what Seth Godin calls a “linchpin.” A linchpin is a team member who is not just an order-taker, but a creative problem-solver who challenges the status quo, volunteers her solutions freely, and takes on responsibilities beyond her job description.

We all know the famous linchpins: Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Whitney Wolfe Herd (Bumble), Jony Ive (Apple).

But a lot of organizations have linchpins who aren’t famous. There is the waiter who goes out of her way to bring a sample of the best cocktail for you to try. There is the data scientist who spends his time understanding the actual business problem instead of just swimming in Python code.

There used to be an order-taker at Le Bus always saying hello and working 110%, so it was never more than 5 minutes for a sandwich, even during lunch hour. After she left, the place (sadly) closed.

Linchpins can make this kind of impact. And because of this, linchpins are indispensable.

As Seth Godin writes in his book Linchpin,

“You weren’t born to be a giant cog in the industrial machine. You were trained to be a cog. There’s an alternative available to you. Becoming a linchpin is a step-wise process, a path in which you develop the attributes that make you indispensable. You can train yourself to matter.”

How were many of us trained to be a cog? In school, we got conditioned to get up only when the bell rings, listen blindly to the teacher, memorize facts about The War of Jenkins' Ear (thanks APUSH), and study just to get an A. In many companies, too, disagreeing with the boss is typically a no-go and it’s ok if you don’t know how your job makes an impact on other departments—or even the actual customer. It’s very possible to get by on autopilot.

I think one of the first steps to becoming a linchpin is to first reject this assembly line, autopilot mindset. (Which admittedly, is beaten into a lot of us)

When an autopilot worker comes across a new problem, he says “that’s not my job” or even worse, “look man, I just work here.”

The autopilot worker only does what he’s told, only cares about his own responsibilities, and only undertakes work that he’ll get credit for at the annual performance review.

As an autopilot worker, you’re not only unfulfilled, but you’re replaceable.

But a linchpin is more like an artist. As Godin puts it, the linchpin is focused on giving gifts, gifts that are personal, novel, interesting, and that make people’s days better—just like the best musicians, painters, and writers you know, who put their pieces out there, regardless of whether or not others want to accept it.

Right now, I'm watching a performer in Rittenhouse Square dressed up as Michael Jackson moonwalk not to "Billie Jean", but to "Human Nature". He's making it work.

Accountants, doormen, developers, doctors, salespeople, waiters, and engineers can be artists too—by focusing on the gifts they can give that make them stand out...and indispensable.

I know it sounds a bit idealistic and fluffy. But here are some questions I ask myself if I feel myself slipping into autopilot mode:

  1. Do I really understand why I’m doing this, or am I just doing it because I’m being told to (or because it's an industry best-practice)?

  2. Is there a better way to do this that would make a positive impact?

  3. What unexpected small thing can I do to make someone’s day 10x better?

These questions definitely aren’t collectively exhaustive, but I think they are a helpful start for getting into linchpin territory.

Source: Linchpin by Seth Godin

A Story

I’ll end this note with a story.

When surgeon and writer Atul Gawande was a surgical resident, he began keeping track, just out of curiosity, the number of instances surgical instruments or sponges were accidentally left inside a patient after an operation was finished. As Gawande calculated, again, for fun... this situation was rare: it happened about once in every 15,000 operations.

But it was a dangerous situation when it would happen. A foot-long retractor left inside one patient tore open his bladder and bowel.

After analyzing the data on many of these instances, Gawande, as he tells in his book Better, figured out the best way to prevent these accidental mistakes going forward was to develop a device to automate the tracking of every surgical device used in an operation.

With the help of colleagues, he made that device a reality. All as a resident.

Now that's a linchpin!


Books Mentioned

(1) Linchpin by Seth Godin


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