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 potentially rewarding opportunity: to become one of two site instructors for a Total Quality program soon to be launched at Sigtek, the small telecommunications company where he worked. Not only was Smithers excited at the chance to apply some of the management tenets he believed in so fervently, he also felt that this program could be the key to setting Sigtek on a path toward much needed change.
Founded 25 years earlier by three Western Electric veterans, Sigtek manufactured printed circuit boards for signal handling which it sold primarily to AT&T and other long-distance carriers. Sigtek was bought 10 years ago by a large technology company which had maintained a hands-off management style, and left Sigtek to its own devices. Sigtek was relatively small and it had faced few competitors in its niche. The company had grown steadily, particularly following the breakup of AT&T and the subsequent opening up of the long-distance market to other competitors. With the telecommunications industry in turmoil, both the carriers and the suppliers that served them had stockpiled products, including the signal-handling equipment that Sigtek made. As a result, Sigtek's sales had shot up to more than $60 million, its workforce topped...