When I was a young industrial engineer at the food production division of a multinational company, the accounting department asked me to find out why there was a large reported loss of refined coconut oil.
They’re the ones we always look for when we need something.
I went to the production manager and he told me to ask Mang Ben.
In the Philippines, calling someone “Mang” is an address of respect usually to an elder. Mang Ben in my case was a fifty-plus year old veteran who had worked at the multinational’s foods processing department for more than 25 years. Mang Ben had more experience than everyone else and he would know why there is a reported loss in the coconut oil. (It turned out to be due to an unsubmitted form that failed to get to accounting).
Mang Ben could tell how many weeks supply an oil storage tank has just by looking at a gauge and he knew how to “cook” the fats and oils that the multinational produced every day. He could unload a barge of coconut oil all by himself and even called shipping operators to schedule when the barges should arrive such that they’d be timed with the incoming tides.
I’ve met many workers like Mang Ben in the enterprises I later engaged with.
- There’s the veteran machine operator who worked for a printing press company. He knew how to quickly troubleshoot critical equipment and was the one the owners went to if they wanted to know if deadlines could be met;
- There’s the storeroom clerk who knew where every spare part of every equipment of the enterprise. Even if there would be hundreds of items, he’d know where they were kept. He also had a box of index cards which he used to track the inventory of the items, from when and how many arrived from which vendors to when and how many were given out and to whom;
- There was the 30-year-old young lady who was the right-hand assistant of an owner of a trading enterprise which delivered to independent convenience stores. She knew every inch of the warehouse she was in charge of and knew every step in the trader’s logistics operations, from order to delivery. She would push people to deliver rush orders and knew the ins and outs of the trading enterprise’s accounting system;
- There’s the purchasing clerk who was familiar with every vendor of the multinational company she worked for. From the ones who delivered the expensive chemicals down to the office supplies, she knew who offered the best deals. She was the go-to person when any of the enterprise’s managers needed something to be bought fast.
Some executives in the past have cited operations managers’ dependency on people like Mang Ben as a sign of weakness in the system. Relying on one person for so much may entail risk especially if that employee suddenly becomes absent or leaves the enterprise.
On the other hand, having a very able veteran brings about opportunities. Veteran employees like Mang Ben bring a wealth of experience that manuals or consultants can’t equal. A manual does not quite teach how much to turn a valve in real life to get to just the right cooking temperature as well as how Mang Ben would show it in person.
Veterans also are likely to know what improvements would be most helpful for an enterprise. Many veteran labourers at warehouses had given me insights on how storage racks should be laid out and what kind of material handling equipment would help. I was surprised, for example, when the labourers at a toy importer said they’d settle for well-built ladders to climb than expensive forklifts to retrieve bulky boxes from the tallest rack shelves.
And when it comes to big changes such as building a new warehouse or installing new technology, it also helps to have veterans participate. Veterans know the products and services of an enterprise very well, if not more so than the owners themselves. Whenever there is an introduction of something new like a new improved machine or new storage facilities, the veterans would likely have valuable input on what to watch out for especially on quality, efficiency, and service.
Veterans would know how high a truck dock should be or where in a factory the floor would be strongest to place a new machine. An architect or civil engineer may offer all the standards but a veteran would know via experience what and where would contribute best for something new.
Many enterprises have veterans like Mang Ben, employees who have loyally stayed long with the business and know more about the operations than just about anyone else. Veterans are not signs of weaknesses but people who offer opportunities for educating new employees and to consult with for improvements, whether minor or major.
We should be grateful for the veterans in our workplace. They contribute more than what we can appreciate them for.