23 June 2018

The Stand In

by: The Reluctant Manager

As the last of the lunchtime tea was being swallowed and the cups were being passed to the duty washer-up the Depot manager cleared his throat.  To the assembled throng crowded around the table he declared “I’m off on holiday for two weeks and I need a volunteer to cover organising you lot while I’m away.”

His gaze surveyed the down cast eyes and was occasionally dazzled by the reflected sunlight as it caught one of the many shiny pates of the assembled depot team.

“Well,” he said “in view of the unanimous, or did I mean ominous, silence I’ll have to select one of you at random.”  Chairs scraped across the floor as the room emptied quicker than the scramble for the last fig roll (a prized delicacy at WD).

With the yard clearing rapidly a hapless volunteer just back from a job entered the mess to take his lunch. “Just the man” said the manager “your team mates have unanimously selected you to be depot manager whilst I spend two weeks away.  You’ll have to arrange the daily work and make sure this list”.  He waved at the board full of one line task descriptions, “are finished by the time I get back.  Here’s the order book if you need anything to support these.”  Then he disappeared in a cloud of dust.

“Bu##er” said the hapless stand in.

The following Monday the stand-in manager stood before the sea of upturned expectant faces.  He knew that half of those before him were promised to the flighty Patricia.  The remainder would not be enough to complete many of the tasks. ‘How to prioritise’ he thought.  So began an auction.  Who knew anything about any of the tasks?  Who could be persuaded to join those who knew the tasks? Reaching back to his management jargon memory bank he grasped at these: which will give me a quick win, which are the low hanging fruit?

Miraculously small groups selected tasks from the list and work on them commenced. Some grass was cut.  Stuart’s job list was started.  The office rebuild carried on and some logs were sold.  The broken wooden rail under the by pass was made safe – by removing it.  Better to have no rail than one which looks good but could collapse on contact.  The bonus ball was that this rail does not belong to CCT or SDC but to Gloucestershire rights of way who will decide what to do next.

The sun burned off the clouds and the yard was humming. ‘This is easy’ thought the stand in. ‘I don’t know why the boss looks harassed’.

Wednesday brought a small handful of volunteers to the depot which made things even easier for our stand in.  The ocean bridge was swung and some repairs were effected.  Stuart was cleared and cleaned.  Patricia’s deck plates were painted.  Small engines were brought back to life.  And the sun shone all day. ‘Easy’, he thought ‘what can go wrong?’

The second week of the substitution arrived.  The mess was full to overflowing. Where did all these volunteers come from?  ‘I’ve got to find things for them to do’.  The log team were back from their breaks quickly disappeared to collect yet more wood for splitting.  The dragon’s teeth for Stuart needed bending and fettling, the spots where they were to be welded on were cleaned of paint and the launching and loading bracket was made and welded on.   Grass needed cutting and grass cutters needed banksmen.  The first hour rushed past in flurry of requests for helpers, of teams departing and manipulation of priorities. Juggling with greased balls seemed an easier task for our stand in.

Even a simple task of collecting a small tool from a local supplier turned into an odyssey.  The correctly labelled sealed box contained a different item.  So back to the shop. “No problem, I’ll see if we have got the right one” was the response at the counter.  They did not have one. “We’ll have one tomorrow”.  Another Job slowed.  During the day the list of jobs got smaller.  A long day for the stand-in.

Wednesday and good news the Depot manager was back!  He had got back early and could not keep away.  He is one of our electrical types and thought that with a stand-in he could help make some serious progress with the new office refurbishment.  The duties were shared and during the afternoon, with some prescience, the yard was filled with white smoke.  Not the election of a new Pope for the yard but a small engine burning copious amounts of oil.  A repaired engine had some obvious problems fixed but on test it was evident that there is a deeper problem within the cylinder.

What did our stand-in learn?  Planning of tasks with volunteers who can choose when to come in is not easy.  Not all the skills needed for a task are guaranteed to turn up.  WD has wide range of engineering tasks and many of the skills needed to perform them but the number and range of tasks we are asked to perform often exceeds our capacity to do them promptly.

This last point is illustrated by the amount of grass cutting and towpath clearance we are asked to do and are committed to do.  We have good kit but often lack people to use it.  There has been some coffee time discussion about summer only volunteers dedicated to grass management and possibly having dedicated grass cutting days.  The discussion has included having Tuesday and Thursday opening in the season just for grass and banks management with dedicated teams of new volunteers for the task.

Swan and cygnets below Pike Bridge. This pen is serene but devoting all her energy to her cygnets she can no longer control her feet. She has to stand on the bottom