Get your hands dirty

Yesterday I was reminded how important it is to get your hands dirty from time to time as your business grows. This is especially important if you have built up the business, have worked in every part and believe you know more than anyone else – in my case I never built up a business from the start so this cannot be true for me ……….. well, at least not the first part.

Let me give you some examples – years ago I was running what was basically a systems integrator. Not being very technical (even though I love gadgets) made my understanding of the complexities challenging. But what I did understand was how to use the technology.

We had to install software onto computers on buses. This had to be done at night as that is the only time all buses are in (unless you can organize a strike). Have you ever been to a bus depot in the middle of the night? Most are vast, with hundreds upon hundreds of buses parked in long rows close together. And they all look the same!

I had heard some stories about the process of reprogramming the onboard computers, so I decided to spend a night on the buses. The inefficiency of the process was mind blowing – six people sat around for hours watching someone else make adjustments to the software and then getting all the buses done before they left the depot again – it was cold, painful, boring and difficult.

We were already working on reprogramming over air, but the night on the buses made me put even more effort into over air reprogramming. For reasons I cannot remember it was being stalled by other parts of the organization – I think it had something to do with the general distrust between the programmers and operations. Putting it over air saved endless unsociable hours for the installation team, costs for the company and brought the error rate down dramatically. And the programming and operations team never did settle their differences.

In another company we washed trucks in 22 locations, some of them franchised (though Richard Lambert would quickly point out they were not real franchises). One afternoon I visited 3 locations and watched how they did it. The difference between the three locations was dramatic. We had no system, but the owner of the company claimed we did. He truly believed everyone was doing it the same way and was amazed by what I told him. Because we were not doing it the same way we had quality issues (it is actually not that easy to wash a truck correctly), complaints, unpaid invoices, and dissatisfied staff.

I tried to introduce better training and consistency but the owner thought that by blasting a few emails about he would solve the problem. Actually as he did know better than anyone else how to do it, it would have been best if he had spent some time going to the key locations and showing people how to do it. The impact would have been awesome. As it is, I left the company and some time later it went into administration. A great loss and so unnecessary.

So it I was reminded again yesterday of the importance of being on ‘the shop floor’. In this case I had to get up at 5 to do so, but I learned again. The most important lesson was the reminder – never lose touch with the simple day to day challenges of your business.

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