Back to Work Environment Notes

Working On The Panama Canal

Note: When I started working on the canal in 1963, leadership was organized around worker responsibility that was implemented in 1904, near the start of its construction. By 1976, the engineer force was growing with people who did not understand the this concept. They were reorganizing the workforce where the employee was to bring his body to work, but leave his brain at home. Soon, old time employees had enough and went on a one week sickout, effectively shutting down the canal. This slowed the administration's change of direction, but change still came. Pride in the company and the job were never the same. Elementary problems exploded that required the hiring of more engineers to deal with them. This experience and other command-and-control leadership experiences is the bases of my workplace motivation concept. My employment was 1963 - 1988.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal When I was in my early 20s, like most people, I wanted to be somebody and attempted to set goals that seemed to be out of reach. I was searching for the unknown while pressures to accept the status quo were slowly killing my grand dreams. There was an internal fight going on. The fight stopped when I decided to take bold action against the advice of my friends. First, some background.

Job "A"

In Oklahoma City, one of my first jobs, as a machinist, was with a small company that paid rock bottom wages. The foreman was extremely sharp, but his main responsibility was to keep his people busy from whistle to whistle, 40 hours a week, and no overtime. This left no room to adjust to varying workloads, which was frequent. To have plenty of work for slack periods, the foreman created time-consuming work habits by changing assignments frequently. This meant always starting, stopping, and changing setups before the run was complete. When this did not work, we manufactured garbage, parts that would never be used. The foreman’s priority was to keep people busy, not get the job done.

The foreman was on salary. On Saturdays, with no additional pay, he had to work by himself as a machinist. Sometimes he manufactured garbage because there was nothing else to do. He had to be there to please the engineer who was trying to impress the owner. The owner’s goal was to squeeze a little more out of the employees for nothing in return. After two years, I realized promotion meant to be taken advantage of. There was no opportunity, so I quit. The foreman quit too.

Job "B"

I found a small aggressive company that seemed to value its employees. They paid fair wages and plenty of overtime. Machinists did whatever was necessary to complete an assignment. The foreman worked as a foreman, but the system gave him no responsibility. He was little more than a messenger between the shop and the engineer. He did nothing but walk around the shop all day, could never answer a question, and never had an opinion about anything. He did have the option, however, to adjust workloads to overtime hours. There was always work to be done. The employees were much more productive than on my last job. The down side - there was no interaction or helpful information between coworkers. Everyone was assigned a job, did as told, and cared less about others.

Desiring to be treated fairly, I asked for the same pay as the foreman’s son who was the least experienced with the highest pay. I was told it was none of my business how others are paid. I discovered opportunity was reserved for friends and relatives and everyone else was to do-as-told. Fighting the system was pointless.

I could feel the status quo trap closing. If I did not take bold action soon, I would be standing behind the lathe for the next 30 years. A promotion meant being like my boss, a messenger. Not wanting to be trapped at a dead-end job, I made plans to move on.

On to Panama

I always desired adventure, but felt that real people didn’t do this sort of thing. Anyhow, I found courage and hitchhiked the Pan American Highway through Central America. I arrived in Panama just before Christmas, 1962. My money was almost gone and I needed to find work or get back to the states.

During the job interview with the Panama Canal Company, locomotives built in 1912 were pulling 900-foot long ships past the window. I was told that skilled craftsmen operated the locomotives. When there are no transiting ships, craftsmen perform maintenance on the locomotives along with other locks’ equipment, including 18 foot diameter valves and 75 foot tall gates. The pay was twice my job in Oklahoma. I was in opportunity heaven. January 2, 1963, two weeks after the interview, I started my career with the Panama Canal Company.

First Days at the Panama Canal

I was hired on my word that I was a machinist and was given 90 days to prove that I could do the work. I was assigned to the machine shop with a mentor, a coworker. I felt free to ask any kind of question. All the other craftsmen worked on equipment somewhere on the mile long Miraflores Locks.

Coworkers were the friendliest I have ever met. They introduced themselves and told me what they were doing. Some suggested I come and work on their team and asked the supervisor.  He said "no." Being fought over on the first day boosted my ego and established my attitude towards coworkers and the company. I did not know it at the time, but shop machinists support field machinists when they need it. Craftsmen are graded by their ability to get jobs done and they are always looking for ways to make their job easier.

Rarely did a supervisor give me an assignment or tell me what to do. It is the craftsman’s responsibility to be aware of needs, find jobs and stay busy, not the supervisor’s. At first, this lack of control shook me up. I needed to prove my machinist skills or I was out. My mentor told me to relax, that I will have more work than I can handle. It was not long until the shop telephone rang. A field machinist asked if I could make a part and gave me the details. I was excited that a coworker asked me to help. Soon electricians and welders also stopped by asking for help. It did not take long to be loaded with work by coworkers. This attitude was completely different from other shops where I was told what to do by supervisors and had little interaction with other employees. Coworkers were grading me and their opinion would determine if I would stay past the 90 days. Four areas being tested were:

At this time, I did not understand team responsibility concepts, but I was doing my best to support the various teams. Whatever I could do to make jobs easier for others was a plus for me. I wanted to be a part of a team and worked hard to be accepted.

Customers Came First

The Panama Canal Locks Division’s responsibility is to lift ocean liners from sea level to canal height, 85 feet above sea level. Towing locomotives are used to guide the ships through the locks and every craftsman was required to be qualified in their operation. Ships were the customers and keeping them moving was everyone’s goal. When there are problems, craftsmen are usually in the area to assist with problems to keep the ships moving. This includes relieving a locomotive operator to use the rest room. Cooperation is expected and no permission is required. Cross training and freedom of workers to assume responsibility is the key to rapid response service.


After 90 days I started my cross training program. I was given a sheet of paper that listed the specialty skills I needed to learn. This would take about two years. To become qualified on the towing locomotives was the first order of training. My instructor was a welder and the training period was for six weeks. Then I would be on my own. Handling 900-foot long ships with hand signals from a pilot is an experience that takes time to master.

The next training phase was to spend one or two months with each team. The cross training program ensured that every Locks Division employee would be qualified in every phase of operation within his craft level. I was assigned to Mr. Anderson's team who worked out of a small field shop. Workdays start at 7 AM and it was 7 when I walked into his shop.

He said, "Sit down and have a cup of coffee."

I did not understand this. Every place I worked before management wanted the machines humming when the whistle blows, even if the machine is not doing anything. Mr. Anderson took his time, described what we would be doing that day and listed the tools we would need for the job. We would need the assistance of an electrician and welder. Mr. Anderson got on the phone and called the needed craftsmen and asked if they could help. He told them where and the time he needed them. If one could not help, he called another, no permission from supervision, on either side, was needed. Employee productivity was measured by cooperative attitudes and the ability to get the job done.

There was always listed and unlisted work to be done. As Mr. Anderson was planning the day’s assignment, he was also bragging how he solved a past problems and how he prevented a major problems. Again, I did not know it, but he was telling me how good planning makes the job easier and saves time. Also, his bragging was informing me of workers’ attitudes, responsibility, and the company goal, "Do the job right the first time."

This was all new to me and I must have been sitting there with my mouth wide open. Job planning, total responsibility, can-do attitude and associating with highly motivated coworkers was a new experience. Only real work was done, no look-busy stuff. I also learned the difference between working hard and working smart. Without proper planning people can knock themselves out and not accomplish anything.

Some assignments seemed impossible. Only once did I suggest we tell our supervisor the job can’t be done. My mentor strongly informed me that we have to find a way. If you can’t do a job you will be replaced by someone who can and your career opportunities will be limited. This was a hard lesson to grasp. I always called the boss when the going got tough. Perseverance, asking another craftsman for assistance when needed and doing the seemingly impossible was a learning process. A few years later, I was training new employees to do the impossible.

Teams had total responsibility and the team's priority was to get the job done. (Versus control) When I first started, I worked hard to be accepted by team members. In a short time, team leaders were asking the supervisor to put me on their team. Coworkers are first to recognize capabilities. My name being mentioned frequently put me high on the recognition list. When I became leader, workers asked to be put on my team. The supervisor knew my team would get difficult jobs done without dragging in management. An empowered team exposes natural talent by coworkers and limits the influence of people who want control.

The Panama Canal operation is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 day a year. Craft supervisors work days, Monday to Friday. On shift work there is no pure supervisory position. There are teams with team leaders who each have their own responsibility. When there is a crisis such as an accident, there is an understood chain-of-command that takes control, uniting all teams, until the situation is back to normal. It is the duty of all workers to assist other teams in emergency or at the request of coworkers. Personal relationship affects the smoothness of cooperation.

Ships coming through the locks are the customers. The goal is to have equipment in reliable running condition so as not to delay any ship. For every minute a ship is in canal waters, it cost the Panama Canal and the shipping company money. If one of the locks’ machines fails and causes a ship delay, it is recorded. If the ship is delayed more than ten minutes, a full report is written and passed to all levels of the Panama Canal Company. It is the craftsmen’s responsibility to drop what they are doing and service failed equipment. There is no time for lunch or breaks until the equipment is operating again. Accidents, ship delays, and overtime hours are analyzed. Trends signal leadership quality, which is what supervisors and craftsmen are judged on. The goal is to keep the ship’s time in canal waters to a minimum. This is how workforce efficiency is measured.


Back to Work Environment Notes