Why do manufacturing plants insist on wearing a white shirt?

So I enter the factory assembly line early in the morning, hurriedly adjusting my white shirt under the navy blue pants. “Why do they ask us to wear white shirts in a manufacturing plant?” I murmured to myself as I took out the black keys from my bright red bike and ran towards the assembly point. Our unit was about to be addressed by our plant head. “Maybe because they want to visually see the amount of work we do”. I was still thinking about the logic of the white shirt. “the dirtier your shirt becomes; the stronger your perception gets built as a hard worker. Or maybe they want to easily locate the line in-charge in a dark dingy assembly line set up or maybe paint a neutral imagery for the line in-charge as everyone else is in blue t-shirts”. Honestly, the question absurdly was very potent at that point of time in my mind but the timing of it was surely puzzling. Or I thought so!

I had to sit in the first row, third from the right, quite obvious when you are amongst the last ones to arrive in such gathering. The plastic chair on which I sat, was dull black with streaks of white cracks shining out. “White finds a place everywhere”. I thought to myself.

The plant head arrived to a rousing reception. He was a bespectacled man with a sharp set of black eyes. Till this point, he had remained very cipher to me. He was known to be a perfectionist and very result oriented with a great heart. I had never visibly seen the hearty side of him. To me he was always brash, rude and way too objective. Post the usual greeting and welcome, he asked a question to the audience- “Why do you think all line in-charges wear white full shirts?”. I immediately sprung up with surprise. Firstly, I realized that I had folded the sleeves of my shirt half way up and sheepishly unfolded it back. Secondly, I questioned myself if my expressions were too ubiquitous. “How did the dry objective man read my emotions?”, I was amazed. I tried to maintain a neutral face hoping someone from the back would answer the question. Sitting in front also gives you a false hope of an invisible back up, which rarely delivers. Suddenly he pointed at me, and asked- “What do you think?”

Shockingly, I glanced at my shirt once again, if it was the dubious reason for my selection and then looked behind if there is someone else who could provide an intelligent input. But there was no one expressing anything and the plant head in front of me, with his expressions of a paused alarm clock, made me immensely nervous. The fact that I had thought about this a moment back didn’t help either as it left me contemplating for the “right answer”. My impulse was to say “no idea” and sit back with peace, but he once again roared- “Yes young man, what do you think”. With all courage, I responded back- “Maybe it’s a color of purity and it inspires us to remain neutral in our roles”, and I took a deep breath, as I completed my sentence.

Hearing this he responded, “How I wish by just wearing white, we would instantly turn into purists”. By this time, I had realized that my tangential thought was definitely not aligned to his circular arc of argument. But what he said after that became the center of my professional thinking space.

He said- “It hardly matters what the color is. It could have been pink, blue, green, orange, black or brown. Could have been just anything! But it is white. And since it is white, I would find a silver lining for it. That is the Lesson no. 1 for all of us, for all of you. You are here, in this block D7, maybe by chance, by hard work, by force but the fact is that you are here! Once you are at a place, you need to find a silver lining for yourself- which either enables you to be there, flourishing or catapults you out of there, to flourish. Don’t waste your time by not having a silver lining and not working towards it. Now since all of you are here with an intent to flourish, let’s define a silver lining for this white color. Every day when we wake up and dress up and see ourselves in front of the mirror- we slowly begin to notice the slightest crease or wrinkle or the dirt in our white shirt. The most responsive to any form of deviation. What do we do? We press it with our hand, fingers or put water, once again hand press it and move ahead. What happens the next day? We notice it again, this time deliberately- at the same spot, the same place- looking for things. From the 3rd day, we are proactively looking for it. Next time before the 7th day, while washing- we start noticing the edges, the collars, the corners around the buttons. Before the 10th day, we start to take care of it while ironing. The silver lining for this white shirt is nothing but being in the moment and observing things. The Art of really being there when you are there! Because lot of times, you are simply not there despite being there in person.”

By this time, I was glued to him. Fully present. There are moments in life when you mysteriously relate to someone. For me, that was my professional epiphany.

He continued: “You all are line in-charges, responsible for cranking 100 units with 95% quality assurance per hour. Lot of it is automated. Lot of it! But there are humans performing some actions to make it happen. When you know that you need to churn out 100 units in 60 minutes, you then begin to notice the actions that make those 100 happen, which in our case is the white shirt. You as human managers, need to get into the details of every behavior which drives the set of actions, which in turn drives results. And to understand and shape behaviors which drives actions, you need to be present in the moment. I see so many of you- at the end of your shift holding a report card, briefing your team and action planning around the problem of falling short by 10 units. But the next morning, all of you, very conveniently, seep into a hope that the previous evening discussion would have magically translated into results the next day. It would happen in some cases, but many a times, it won’t be sustainable. It won’t last because the focus was not on actions intended to drive performance. The focus was on plastering a tape of pressure to achieve an objective which with time would loosen up and fall flat. So tomorrow when you wear a white shirt, reflect back and think hard- Are you particularly obsessed with the actions that drives results or only passionate about the results which pull actions with a magical string of hope!”

The hall reverberated with a thunderous applause. As I got up, I looked at my white shirt and found a patch of grey grease around the corner of my right sleeve. I instantly smiled.

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Adrit Mishra

When statistics & management insights transcends into philosophical, introspective & poetic ones