John Smithers at Sigtek

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Harvard Business School

John Smithers at Sigtek

It was a few days before Christmas, and a light snow had covered the New England town where John Smithers lived with his wife and two young children. But instead of planning surprises and wrapping presents, Smithers was working on his resume. He had already warned his wife that within weeks he expected to be fired by Sigtek, his employer of three years. His boss and mentor had just been demoted to what appeared to be an extraneous position. He figured it was just a matter of time until his job was taken, too.

Eight months earlier, things had looked very different. Smithers 's boss, Andrew Cross, had selected him for what appeared to be a challenging and
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By April, Telwork was ready to begin training instructors from each of its subsidiaries in the Total Quality program.

Smithers Makes a Choice

Andrew Cross, Sigtek 's vice president of engineering, asked Smithers to become one of two site instructors for the Total Quality program (see Exhibit 1). Smithers looked up to Cross as a mentor, and the two men had similar ideas about the best way to manage people. Although Sigtek 's overall management style could be characterized as autocratic and largely unresponsive to worker concerns, both Smithers and Cross had been working within the engineering side of the business to encourage problem solving and open communication, and to enlist worker participation. Moreover, Smithers had already demonstrated an ability to identify problems within the engineering group and to come up with effective strategies for resolving them. Less than a year earlier, Cross had promoted Smithers to head up engineering services, the group responsible for doing product design work and documentation for manufacturing, and one of Sigtek 's more troubled units.

As engineering services manager, Smithers had to redefine a haphazard design process, correct inadequate documentation, and cut the highest employee turnover rate in the company. Relying on several

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