Friday, August 14, 2009

Drop the Shovel and Put on the Blindfold!

Hey ya’ll, it’s the ARM Dude here. I just finished a conversation with a prospect regarding the systems they use to manage their operations. It was a discussion that mirrored many others that I have had during my 25+years in the IT industry. Each occurrence left me thinking about some lessons my late father taught me many years ago.

My father was an auto mechanic that worked on a commission basis. I remember watching him bring old carburetors home so that he could practice rebuilding them. BLINDFOLDED! He would put on a blindfold, tear the carburetor down, clean everything, and then rebuild it. He would time himself as he did this so that he could measure his improvement each time. He was blind in one eye so the first time I saw him do this I thought he might be losing the sight in his other eye. I remember him laughing when I asked if he was going blind. He then provided me with a very simple but true explanation. “Time is money, boy. I get paid more when I fix more cars.” Through this unusual practice he was eliminating the inefficiencies that would impact his ability to achieve maximum earnings.

I began working for my dad as a helper during the summers while in high school. One of the first things I noticed is that he had more tools than any of the other mechanics. He kept adding to this collection each time a sales rep for one of the tool companies would visit the shop. I was curious why he was spending so much money on tools, some of which were quite expensive, when I didn’t see the other mechanics doing the same. Again his answer was rather simple, “You have to spend money to make money”. He further explained that he didn’t buy tools just to buy tools. Instead he bought tools that would allow him to further reduce the time to complete a specific repair. This would result in higher earnings that would pay for the tools several times over during the course of their use.

He would always troubleshoot the problems with a car when we brought it into the stall for repair. He would then tell me how to do the repair and the tools to use before starting to troubleshoot the next car to be fixed. I was amazed at his ability to pinpoint the problem after hearing it run or after a short test ride. I wanted to learn how to do this as well but he told me that we would go to that step once I learned how to use my tools effectively. He then pointed out that I was still learning how to determine which tool was the best to use for a particular task. A non-mechanical example he provided was that there were multiple tools that could be used to dig a hole. The purpose and size of the hole would help determine the proper tool. A hand trowel would be fine if I was digging the hole for a small plant, a shovel would be better for a bigger hole, but a backhoe would be needed to dig a large trench. All three tools were capable of digging the trench but it would take much more effort and time to use anything other than a backhoe.

Dad brought all of these lessons together for me one day when he showed me a report that indicated he was fixing two to three times more cars than any of the other mechanics. His explanation for this was that he spent his time and money on eliminating inefficiencies and adding tools that increased output. However, the other mechanics were reluctant to do the same because they placed more value on their knowledge than they did their tools or processes. Their knowledge would help them fix cars and keep them employed but it alone could not provide a significant increase in their output.

The prospect that I mentioned in the opening of this blog reminds me of those other mechanics. It is a successful business but growth has stagnated. The owner is satisfied with the current state of the business yet our discussions revealed numerous issues that could be equated to digging a swimming pool with a shovel. The jobs were getting done because his hard working staff was diligent in their efforts. There was no perceived value in changing processes or adding tools as long as this was the case. I left the discussion feeling deflated because I recognized a business that needs help but was not ready to accept it. It made me want to shout, “It’s time to drop the shovel and put on the blindfold!”

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