Learning to Dig What Workers Do
by Lori Bona Hunt BA '90 Home

The story line is not unfamiliar: a soul-searching man packs up his trusty vehicle and hits the open road in a quest for the meaning of life.
In Hollywood, it was Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper, searching for the essence of America from their vantage point atop motorcycles in "Easy Rider." Television viewers of the 1960's will remember Buzz and Todd and their Corvette, yearning for adventure and encountering life's mysteries on the winding highways and byways of "Route 66." And who can forget Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," which chronicled a slave's journey to freedom and a boy's search for truth and a better life?
But in this story, the wanderer is not fictional. He has a real life and a demanding job. He also knew that in real life, things usually don't turn out the way they do in movies and books.
Scott Young was willing to take the risk. In 1993, the University of Utah management professor, now associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business, put his life on hold, loaded up his Mitsubishi Montero with supplies, and set out to learn about the working people of America.
Computer ProgrammerHe racked up 12,000 miles, traveling to the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and back again. He topped at places like coal mines, wedding chapels, factories, and office buildings--walked right up and knocked on the doors--asking people why they do what they do. "It was a boyhood dream come true," says Young, a U professor of 11 years.
Young wasn't sure what he was seeking or what he would find--if anything. He was inspired by Studs Terkel's chronicle of American laborers in the book Working, and intrigued by the prospect of gathering his own oral histories from workers. He traveled solo for 17 weeks.
During his journey, Young developed a theory that guides how he teaches and thinks today, "Human Centered Production." The theory proposes it is time to reawaken managers to the importance of dealing one-on-one with employees and for workers and managers to appreciate and tolerate differences. It calls for an understanding of individuality and uniqueness. Workers should operate in "teams," and play a role in management and leadership decisions, including goal-setting, planning, budgets, hiring, peer evaluation, training, and workload.
It took just one visit to the right company for the concept to take shape. It happened in as unlikely a place as one would expect to find a business professor--the deep, dark shafts of an Illinois coal mine. Sanitation Engineer
There, Young found miners: tired, filthy, their eyes still adjusting to the light after a day in darkness, eagerly talking to the next "shift" about what to expect. Men and women wearing heavy coveralls would get down on the hard, tile floor in the hallway and do exercises in preparation for the work that lay ahead. Managers would travel into the depths of the mine to see problems and progress firsthand. They called their workers by name, knew about their lives, families, and personal problems. The managers called it "going underground." The workers called it caring and respect. So they, in turn, cared about their work and colleagues. Young developed a name for what he saw, and came home to write and teach about it.
"Mines are dangerous places, and it became clear to me that if I worked in one, I would not want to work for a manager who stayed in his office, but one willing to 'go underground' and get close to the danger, to the battle," Young says.
"Too many managers are not spending time with the people they work with, they are out of touch with what their employees do, what they need, what is going on in their lives." In short, they are less efficient leaders, he says.
Unfortunately, not every business Young visited while on the road inspired him to develop management theories. In fact, no other place had such a success story to tell. But Young still looks back fondly on the conversations he had with working Americans, from the marriage oppositionist who ran a wedding chapel in Reno to the film student-turned-critic he met and dined with in Hollywood. Yet, inevitably, whenever he speaks of his trip, he always ends up reminiscing about the coal mine.
Young wrote about the theory he developed while visiting the mine in his book Managing Global Operations. He says workers should operate as a team, but the value and uniqueness of the individual must not be lost. Managers must recognize the importance of the job to each individual. Many times, the worker becomes an anonymous face without a human history. Managers must know their workforce and motivate employees to produce quality products and provide quality service.
In the classroom, he tells students how his ideas came to be. His tales even inspired some to take road trips of their own, in much the same way that Hollywood movies, television shows, and books of the same genre have influenced truth seekers for generations.
Even Young would like to take another road trip one day. But his students keep him grounded. "Besides," he says, "I don't know how I'll ever surpass the first."

--Lori Bona Hunt BA'90 is a former writer with the University News Service and was editor of The Utah Daily Chronicle and a reporter for the Standard Examiner in Ogden.

Spring 1998 Continuum Magazine
Questions and Comments