Disclaimer: Locations and names have been changed to ensure the protection of both those involved and myself. It’s to the understanding of Mr. Claus that his facility and staff will remain a mystery, with only pre-approved details making their way into the final piece. Also, I’m not saying that any of this is true—I’m not saying it isn’t either.
I can feel my legs vibrate as they touch ground for the first time in the 3251-mile journey to the northernmost point on earth. I look behind me as the wind from the helicopter blades nearly knocks me off my feet. My mind races as I try to recall how I found myself in this situation. My boots sink into the snow and I can hear the sound of the snow as it forms to my boot; every step I take is met with a loud crunch as the snow packs under my boot, as if the snow atop the icy surface has gone untouched for years; my legs jostle as they fully support myself for the first time in what seems like days. The past 24 hours have been nothing short of a blur to me: a private chartered flights, a nine-hour road trip down the Canadian highway, a ferry across the Atlantic; every move I make is carefully designed and conducted under extreme supervision—and for good reason. Back in July of 2016, our sales team received an order for over 200 unique visual management systems. Their final destination: unknown. The purchasing agent was very selective when it came to details. All we were given was the address for a warehouse off the coast of St. Anthony. After a few weeks time the products were manufactured and shipped off from our factory in New York and freighted directly to Newfoundland. A month later, the purchasing agent contacted us again, this time looking for an additional 800 production systems. The order itself was alarmingly large—even for a billion dollar manufacturing facility.
For context: The world’s largest manufacturing facilities, employing hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers, only call for a third of what this order was requesting. Our dry erase boards solve a big problem many factories face by working as a form of visual communication between management and the workforce. While serving a vital need for the manufacturing industry, virtually no single factory can require this quantity of purchases For a factory to be ordering our products in such a massive number—to a location that has no immediate ties to the manufacturing industry—you’re left to assume one of two things: either that there’s a branch of a multi-billion dollar company located off the coast of St. Anthony, or that the organization in question is simply a cover and for something that’s worth all the trouble of concealing.
A quick Google search for “St. Anthony manufacturing” turns up nothing but a few articles on a local metal fabrication facility and a cold storage warehouse—surely nothing too out of the ordinary. I spent hours researching some of the globes largest manufacturing facilities: Do they do business in Canada? Perhaps they ship remotely from an off-site location? How many international manufacturers are based out of The Great White North? It became clear that no matter how deep I continued to dive into the origins of the purchase, nothing would come of it.
At this point in my day, I was so heavily invested in uncovering the origins of this purchase, that it would be foolish to toss in the towel so soon. Besides, any company that’s buying over 1,000 Magnatag products must adore our brand; I would be doing my superiors a disservice by not following through with the customer—at least, that’s what I told myself. The truth is the mystery was just too much fun to cover. I felt like a young Sherlock Holmes: ambitious, determined, brilliant (or so I thought), and lacking British sensibilities—the complete package, really.
With the help of our sales team I was able to get a hold of an email address for the purchasing agent in charge of the order. The client provided only his initials: ‘M.E.’, for the purchase. I reached out using the generic outreach email I usually use: talking a bit about our company; speaking of my position and responsibilities as a member of our marketing team; and most importantly, asking if they would be interested in a helping with some product research by conducting a quick over-the-phone interview with myself. Hook, line, and sinker.
Weeks went by without a response from the illustrious ‘M.E.’. I sent follow-up email after follow-up email—something I genuinely try my best to avoid whenever possible—with no avail. I had pulled virtually every trick at my disposal to get to the bottom of this story, but for whatever reason, nothing stuck.
It’s November 5th, 2016. Months have passed since I last assumed the role of Investigator Extraordinaire here at Magnatag. Thousands of additional orders have come in since that time, with each one bringing with it a story to tell. Since telling customer stories is part of my actual* role in the company, every email our sales team receives arrives directly in my inbox. I typically receive about 200 or so emails per business day, which I periodically sort through in 5-minute increments; it’s a great way for me to split up my workload, while also providing me with insight as to what products are in hot demand.
It’s about noon; my stomach has just begun its daily grumbling routine as I anxiously wait for the clock to strike one. Lunchtime is just around the corner; the smell of warm microwaved hot-pockets consumes the office like the scent of a warm turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and I can almost taste the chicken and rice bowl I packed for work. I force myself to redirect my eyes towards the computer screen and take this brief moment of weakness as a opportunity to clear out my inbox.
I keep my eyes glued to my computer screen; my hand routinely clicking the garbage bin icon as a continuous stream of purchases flash across my screen, with each order representing yet another customer in our company’s ever-expanding roster of loyal “Magnatager’s”—which is just a silly insider term we like to use for patrons. Between the names of various schools, hospitals, military programs, and factories, one email happens to catch my eye. It’s M.E.
Perhaps this was an instance of sheer luck, or even an early Christmas miracle (if you believe in that sort of thing), but whatever it was, it sure felt like I was destined to find it. After all, I spent months searching for anything that could bring me closer to the mystery behind one of our company’s largest purchases, and now it just winds up on my lap?
I instantly print the contact sheet and sprint out of my office like a madman: dodging and passing coworkers like I’m driving a stock car in the Daytona 500 with the Sprint Cup on the line. I feel an adrenaline rush similar to when I first stepped into my position with Magnatag two years ago; I’m eager to make an impact with this story. “Finally”, I think to myself, “now I’ll be able to get to the bottom of this story. Perhaps—if the story is as good as it seems—we can use it for an entire marketing campaign. I’m thinking commercials, testimonials, and press releases. The whole gambit.”
Having explained my intentions to the Sales Manager, I insist to let me handle the follow-up call. Prior to graduating from college, I had spent 5 years working in the retail/customer service environment, so I felt as though I may be able to offer some degree of insider perspective with that experience under my belt. After some back and fourth between the two of us, she reluctantly agrees.
Back at my desk, I stare at the order form: 100 Kanban boards, 100 StepTrackers, 100 Preventative-Maintenance Schedules, and 100 Production Rate Trackers. The products are fairly standard for the average factory order, but 50 of each item? This most recent purchase would put M.E.’s factory at well over 1,500 boards, a number that would delight upper management, surely. I had to get to the bottom of this.
I knew that writing an email similar to my previous attempts would not only jeopardize the sale, but was also likely to limit any communication from M.E. altogether. My point of contact had to be measured; this was my only second chance, and I was not about to let this case slip through my fingers once again.
I decide to play it safe and respond to the order by supplying the requested quote and nothing more. If M.E. were to follow through with the purchase order, they would have to follow though with an over the phone confirmation—which seemed like the perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation. Here’s my reasoning: You never want to break up with someone over the phone. But if you’re ever forced to, the general rules for human decency state that phone calls are much more personal. Text-based conversations are known to limit expression, making it virtually impossible to convey tone of voice in under a 200-word response. Taking this knowledge and somewhat twisting it to my desires, I hoped that talking over the phone would help me resonate with M.E. on some sort of personal level, but if M.E. was planning on shutting me down for good, at least I’d hear it directly from his (or her) mouth.
I waited for what felt like an eternity—in actuality was only a few hours time. My phone rings. “It’s M.E. It has to be”, I think to myself. As I pick up the phone, my imagination runs wild with a collection of theories about whoever is on the other end of the call.
“Hello, Mike Pedro”, I answer in a hurry.
“Uh, yeah, hi Mike I’m calling to confirm a purchase order for quote: SQ00081469”, says the man in a rather high-pitched voice. It’s M.E.
“Awesome! Hey, before we get started, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your company? We like to have these sort of things on file in case any complications occur with the freight service we’ll be using to ship your products.” Surely, he can’t argue with that logic right?
“Do you really need it? You should have our data on file from last time.” I can make out faint whispers on the other end of the phone.
Our conversation continued for some time with no progress on my end. It was made very apparent that the contact info and shipping address we had previously been provided was more than enough to work with. As a last ditch effort to save whatever remained of our conversation, I mustered up the courage—while lacking common sense—to go off script and risk the potential of derailing the entire purchase.
“M.E., you’re order has been processed and you’re all set, but I must ask: What company do you work for? Your business is extremely important to us, and at this point, I’m rather curious to see what type of operation requires this many whiteboards.” He hung up. It was time to accept defeat; whatever it was that M.E. was hiding, he was certainly not interested in letting me in on the secret.
Sure enough, the order processed without fail. Payment was received on our end within minutes of M.E. shattering my hopes for the final time. I let out a deep sigh and sunk back into my chair, baffled that I had once again dropped the ball on what could’ve been a great product story. In an attempt to divert my mind from the mishandled phone call, I direct my attention to my now cluttered desk. In the midst of the phone call frenzy, I had managed to completely bury my keyboard with miscellaneous order sheets. They say that some of the world’s most intelligent minds are also responsible for some of the world’s most disastrous workspaces. While I can appreciate being likened to the minds of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein for this brief moment in time, something tells me that their desks were not responsible for the successes they found in life.
With the papers now orderly stacked and my desk returned to a somewhat respectable state of being, I return to my daily routine. As I continue working on the latest product story, I notice a constant stream of mailbox notifications in the upper right-hand section of my desktop. It’s rather unusual for me to receive any more that five emails within a five-minute period of time—let alone receive multiple emails simultaneously. They’re not intermittent or spread out, but rather rapid and in immediate succession of each other, as if they were sent in a rapid train of thought, one idea after the other. Curious as to what could be so pressing, I dig into my inbox.
Therein lies the email chain that set my notifications ablaze: seven messages all from the same sender, Marty@SC.com. The messages were as follows:
- “Thanks for helping me out earlier with those whiteboards.”
- “I had some time to think it over with our boss and we can help you out.”
- “It’s a really busy time of year for us.”
- “When you get a chance, go to the store and pick up a cheap cellphone plan. One of those pay-as-you-go sort of deals.”
- “Everything must be kept quiet.”
- “You’re not in any danger; it’s just a precaution the boss likes to take”
- “Call this number when you’re ready to go: xxx-xxx-xxxx. It’ll be a few days”
The entire scenario felt like something out of a thriller film: there’s the detective working on a case; a dodgy suspect hesitant to talk, only to be followed by a mysterious request to contact a number of unknown origin for more information. It was a scenario I had—and will never again—wind up in. It was the ultimate thrill.
I followed the instructions carefully: purchasing the phone, locking myself away from any outside influence, making the call etc. The conversation itself was about an hour long. I was able to confirm that the ‘M.E.’ I had previously spoken to was indeed the Marty that emailed me. He told me that details regarding their company would be scarce at first; all he could tell me was that they specialized in toy manufacturing, but if I chose to learn more about their facilities, there was an open invitation to speak with their Quality Control Manager in their headquarters in the artic—all expenses paid. Marty had agreed to meet me at the halfway point of my journey, asking if I would be available to leave in two days.
The decision was a no-brainer: I had packed my bags and set off on a chartered flight headed for Montréal. Upon landing there, I was directed to pick up a car that had been reserved for me at the airport. Directions to my next location would be located in the glove box compartment. I scan cars all throughout the parking garage until I come across my vehicle: a 2016 Range Rover Sport. I check the glove compartment; I’m headed to the nine hours North to the Trans-Canada Highway Ferry. The attached note specifies I’ll meet Marty there.
The ride is mostly painless, rather scenic at times; Montréal is the furthest North I have ever been. Upon arriving at the Ferry depot, I search the yard for Marty. I have no idea what he looks like, not to mention the number I had previously been given is now disconnected. I trust the process and wait on a bench nearby the front office. As time passes I watch as countless families and travellers board the 100-foot vessel. One by one, passengers waltz across the pavement: first checking in, then grabbing their ticket, and proceeding onwards.
I wonder how long I’ll wait for my escort? Where will this journey take me? I doze off for a bit; it’s now dark, and it looks as though the final ferry has begun boarding for the night’s final trip across the pond. There’s still no sign of Marty. Have I been duped?
My phone has been dead for hours at this point; I have lost all sense of time—it’s almost easing. I turn to my left and right looking for anyone to ask for the time. Finding no such luck, I walk over to the front office to check with the secretary at the front desk. She tells me the time is 9:00 and the last ferry will be leaving within the hour. As I walk away, I am approached by a man about 3’ tall dressed in a suit. He asks me if I’m Mike; I hesitantly reply. After introducing himself as Marty, he asks if I’d like to follow him onboard the Ferry. We find seats towards the front of the boat as we make our way towards Newfoundland.
The ferry ride is estimated to be somewhere in between the nine and ten hours. There’re cabins located beneath the deck, but since I’ve spent the entirety of my day sitting, Marty and I elect to stretch our feet and take in the mists of the Atlantic. I have so many questions for him; I don’t know where to start. Thankfully, he gets right into the details of our situation. Marty tells me he works for the world’s largest toy distributor: Santa Claus. I can’t decide whether I want to bust out in anger or laughter; did this man really drag me to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean just to play a joke on me? He describes his role with the company as Santa’s right-hand man. Anything that needs to be done, regardless of whether it’s scouting out a lumberyard for raw materials or managing the remainder of the jolly old man’s staff, it’s his responsibility to oversee it all. His answers are so genuine and filled with such detail; I can’t help but be entertained and play along with the story.
Marty continues to explain where our journey will go from here: Once we arrive at the port in Newfoundland, we will meet up with his coworker, Alec, who will drive us to their shipping warehouse. The drive is only 45 minutes long, but due to the severity of the operation, I will be required to wear a blindfold as we travel from this point forward. He assures me that my safety is their top concern, adding that St. Nicolas made a special arrangement to ensure my arrival to their factory was seamless. Once we reach the warehouse, we’ll then travel North to their factory in—yup, you guessed it—the North Pole.
As a child, Christmas was always one of my favorite holidays. The cookies, the snowfall, the music; all of it made the season special. Yet as I grew older, and the allure behind the holiday vanished. There was no such thing as Santa; my parents bought me gifts and wrapped my presents. Anyone that believed otherwise was full of delusion. I ask Marty to be straight with me for once. I understand that wherever it is we are going—whatever organization he works for—it’s not something I should be a part of. My requests for answers are met with nothing more than simple reassurances that my safety is of top concern.
As I go to grab my phone, I remember that the battery died back at the docks. If I ever want to get myself out of this ridiculous situation, I’d need to find a way to get power back to my device. I realized I had two choices: either go down to the cabins and find someone with a charger that’s compatible for my phone, or to continue speaking with Marty and reliving this strange childhood fantasy. Eventually, I found a man that was willing to part with his charger for a few hours. It takes a while, but eventually I am able to restore power to my phone—only to be reminded that it’s rather difficult to receive any sort of cellphone reception in the middle of the ocean. I decide I’ll give it another go once we arrive in St. Andrews. I return the charger, lie down on an empty cot, and close my eyes.
I wake up to the sounds of footsteps, and passengers begin to make their way down the hallway and back up towards the deck. Prior to joining suit, I set up a plan of my own: I have to blend in with the crowd as much as possible. Surely Marty will be keeping an eye out for me; it’s been hours since we’ve last spoken. I dig into my bag and find some shades and a hat that will help conceal my face. Once I make it off the boat without the Marty’s notice, I’ll make my way to the nearest building; I should be able to call home from there.
I join in with the crowd, keeping my face glued to the ground. I catch Marty out of the corner of my eye; He’s standing in the same place I left him. I avoid eye contact at all costs, weaving between fellow passengers as they patiently wait their turn to exit the craft. I wait my turn and manage to get off the ferry without a hitch. My legs feel a bit weak as I continue onwards, so I decide to stop at the bench next to the ticket booth. As I attempt to regain my strength, I think about everyone back at home; how they’d react once I told them about this story. I close my eyes and take in the cold air for a brief moment. I drift off into a deep sleep.
I wake up 10,000 feet in the air. As I look forward I see Marty wearing a headset, grinning ear to ear as he sits in the seat across from me. He speaks but I cannot hear him over all the noise. He points to the seat next to me: there’s a headset similar to the one he is wearing; I put it on and listen.
“Thought we’d miss you back there! I hope you don’t mind, but we decided to forego the whole blindfold thing and just give you a little North Pole medication to put you out for a few hours. I gave you it while you were sleeping on the ferry! Looks like we’re gonna be landing soon; you woke up just in time.”
Before I have a chance to react, I feel the aircraft shake as we make our decent downwards. I look out the window only to see nothing but ice. I can’t believe it; was Marty serious? Were we really in the North Pole?
I can feel my legs vibrate as they touch ground for the first time in the 3251-mile journey to the northernmost point on earth. I look behind me as the wind from the helicopter blades nearly knocks me off my feet. My mind races as I try to recall how I found myself in this situation. My boots sink into the snow and I can hear the sound of the snow as it forms to my boot; every step I take is met with a loud crunch as the snow packs under my boot, as if the snow atop the icy surface has gone untouched for years; my legs jostle as they fully support myself for the first time in what seems like days. The past 24 hours have been nothing short of a blur to me: a private chartered flights, a nine-hour road trip down the Canadian highway, a ferry across the Atlantic; it all feels surreal.
As I look out into the distance, I can see the factory: The exterior looks to be made completely of glass, with as many as 20 floors. Christmas lights of all colors shine brightly from the rooftop, hanging over the building like giant icicles. As we approach the front of the building, I notice pillars on either side of the door dressed to resemble candy canes—even the doorknob is decorated to look like gumdrops! It’s equally beautiful as it is mesmerizing; it is a sight I’ll surely never forget.
Marty lets me inside and assures me that I’ll get a chance to speak with the boss soon. In the meantime however, he invites me to join him for a tour of the factory. I’m told that the factory—as it currently stands right now in the midst of a major renovation process—stands at over 30 million square feet, making it the largest factory in existence. Building renovations are a common occurrence for the North Pole facility, with as many as four departments—of the buildings 15 which include: dolls, cars, electronics, clothes, and action figures—undergoing some degree of restoration per year. Marty explains that the renovations work as a way to enhance the continuous improvement culture that Santa initiated some 100 years ago (Marty also claims Toyota stole the idea for the Toyota Production System from Mr. Claus, hence the heightened security concerning visitors.)
I’m given a badge that will grant me access to any of the facilities on the North Pole Campus. The first stop on our tour will be the woodshop facility, which is one of the many sites that have incorporated Magnatag products into the workflow—more specifically, the SafetyCross system. Sawdust fills the air as we make our way through the security checkpoint; hundreds of elves stare blankly as we make our way across the floor. Attempting not to stare in sheer awe, I distract myself by attempting to avoid tripping over the many one-of-a-kind wood storage cabs that litter the facility. I ask Marty if they should be considered a safety violation; he laughs and waves me onwards. The woodworking facility on campus is home to the most employee accidents due to the limited range of motion the elves have at their disposal. While Santa tries his best to accommodate his workers by providing them with the best tools for the job, the reality is that accidents happen—especially when you’re 3’ tall. In an attempt to bring employee safety into the focus of the workforce, Marty has installed hundreds of SafetyCross boards throughout the woodworking building. The systems encourage workers to remain focused on maintaining an accident-free workplace for the day by using green magnets to symbolize an accident-free day. Over one hundred workers have been assigned to take initiative when it comes to using the SafetyCross system in their department of the woodworking facility. At the time of my visit, the facility had been using the boards for a few months time, but Marty noted that many workers had already began taking on the responsibility associated with keeping the board up-to-date.
Our next stop was the textile manufacturing facility. I was told that approximately over 1 billion articles of clothing make their way through these doors during the course of the year. While touring the facility, Marty introduced me to a machine operator, Rita. Rita plays an important role to the value stream as she oversees the autonomous maintenance process for machinery. While some factories choose to undertake machine repairs on an as needed basis, every machine located on the North Pole facility undergoes some degree of weekly restoration. Part of Rita’s responsibility is to coordinate the necessary restorations throughout the week, assigning individual tasks to each machine and their respective operator. It was at Rita’s request, that Marty order Magnatag’s StepTracker systems. As we walked throughout the value stream, she was able to show me just how critical the StepTracker has become to the facilities workflow: Rita’s system has been designed so each StepTracker system is designated a series of machines. It’s the responsibility of the operator to then check the board on a weekly basis, completing the next sequential step for their machine. Once the task has been completed, they are required to mark their job using a green color-coded magnet. At the end of each workweek, Rita inspects each board to ensure that all restoration tasks for the week have been completed. Unfortunately by this time of day, the textile workers have already head home for the night, so I was unable to see the facility in full gear.
After speaking with Rita, Marty informs me that my interview with the boss is in an hour. Rita and I say our goodbyes and I head off to the last stop of my tour: the shipping facility. Circular glass tubes line the walls of the shipping bay. I watch as individually wrapped presents make their way down the chutes, with each tube ultimately leading to the same destination: a giant red bag. Surrounding by an collection of forklifts, boxes and a whole lot of wrapping paper; workers encompass the outside of the bag collecting and repackaging any items that have found their way to the floor. Marty explains that while the shipping tubes are refined to perfection, occasionally presents will miss their target and wind up outside the bag. It’s a rare occasion, but if not accounted for, hundreds of children will miss out on receiving their gifts.
Marty takes me to the back of the shipping center to highlight how the Kanban boards are being put to use. he explains that the Kanban system is used as a way to track the inventory of boxes, keeping track of sizes, shapes and colors. Kanban cards are placed on the board to indicate the type of box that has been taken from storage for rewrapping gifts. Each time a box is removed from storage, its respective card is then placed on the board. As boxes are continuously removed from storage, cards begin to reach the top of the board, signaling that additional boxes need to be ordered.
Marty’s phone rings; it is time to meet with the big man. As we make our way through the facility, I pull my notebook out of my bag, re-reading the questions I had previously planned to ask a run-of-the-mill Quality Control Manager. Getting a chance to interview the real Santa Claus? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As we walk into his office, I notice the room is empty. I immediately notice the gigantic world map that hangs above his desk. It looks like a magnetic dry erase map from Magnatag, with Wactacks scattered across the globe. Marty tells me that the map is used to highlight individual cities that are of key importance to Santa. In addition, hundreds of KPI scoreboards have also found their way into the office. Marked as the ‘Factory Hub’, the right portion of Santa’s office is home to an up-to-date overview of the factory’s weekly metrics. Taking a seat at the opposite end of the desk I patiently wait for St. Nicolas to make his arrival.
Moments later the door bursts open, and as the 500 pound man enters the room, his presence is immediately felt. Dressed in red overalls and a pristine white tee shirt, he wobbles his way around the desk. I reach out for a handshake, but I’m told that will not do; he stretches his arms out across his desk, constricting my body as he brings me in for what can only be described as the world’s tightest bear hug. Santa and I chat for a while; about my parents and the gifts I received as a child; it’s clear he knows a great deal about me, and I know very little about the man behind the beard.
What follows is the discussion we had that night in his office. I left shortly after our meeting and I have yet to hear from his party—granted this is his busy season. The one thing I was able to take away from our conversation was that the North Pole campus goes to extreme lengths to guarantee their facilities are running as efficiently as possible.
How many days a year does the factory run?
365 days. It’s quite the operation
Can you tell me a bit about the North Pole Campus?
To put it simply the North Pole campus is the best manufacturing facility in the world. We’re regularly renovating our 15 facilities on a yearly basis, so I can ensure all our equipment and procedures are considered to be above the industry standard. It’s all part of our continuous improvement culture.
Both yourself and Marty mentioned that a big focus in your North Pole campus is continuous improvement. Could you speak as to why this is so important?
Well, I like to think of my factory as any other manufacturing facility. There’s always something you can do better—we’re no exception. I think that part of running the world’s most successful and efficient factory starts with analyzing your value stream and finding ways to build upon it. That’s why safety is so important to us. Going into the New Year we noticed that was a weak spot for us, so we built upon that weakness and noticed immediate results.
So I see you ordered the KPI Scoreboards for yourself. Why?
Oh, well you see, I have thousands of operations going on throughout my facility. While I can manage to travel all around the world when it comes to delivering presents once a year, I can’t afford to make that concession every day Ho ho ho! This old man needs some rest. Having the KPI scoreboards in my office allows me easily gauge whether or not we are meeting our milestones.
How often would you say something doesn’t make standards in you factory?
“Well, just as any other Factory Manager will tell you; it’s nearly impossible to perfect your value stream. There’s always going to be some degree of mess-ups attributed to production. We like to find ways to highlight mistakes, understand why they happen, and take preventative action to ensure they are corrected for future use.
You essentially have an unlimited amount of capital at your disposal. Why use Magnatag products?
I’m a really visual person. To be able to walk into one of our facilities—or even my own office—and get a quick overview of the performance of our operations is huge. Your products are simple and easy to use, while also providing a great amount of value to our production. The dry erase systems are an excellent supplement to our continuous improvement efforts because they enable my team to easily show what’s happening.