Saturday, May 14, 2011

Boat Anchors

I own a sailboat, although currently it resembles an anchor, having sat in the same place for almost three years.  That is what an anchor is supposed to do, keep you in one place.  On a boat, if you forget to retrieve the anchor the engine can be roaring, the bow high, and if you move at all it'll be really slow. Some employees can be like that too.

It is amazing how an anchor weighing just a few pounds could hold back a boat weighing thousands of pounds.  The same thing happens in many businesses.   A single boat anchor can hold back a whole company too.  Like the anchor on the boat, sometimes you are able to drag them along, which when looking at the shore, it look like you are making progress. However you need only look at other businesses, to realize that they are passing you by.  I am ashamed to admit it, but once took me 7 years to recognize a boat anchor and deal with him!

Boat anchors come in many forms.  Some can appear to be good loyal employees that always look out for the company's best interest.  All the ones I've ever met were very friendly too.  Outside of work they are often fun people to be around.  So how do you recognize one? The most common way is that these are invariably the people you need to actually manage, as opposed to those that simply need direction.

In the case above I finally saw what was going on when I realized that literally all the rules in the employee handbook were written to control just one employee!  It didn't really matter what the rule was about, starting time, sick days, lunch time etc.  He always skated over the edge, seemingly just to test the rule.  Of course to be 'fair' I had to apply these rules to everyone. That meant that the guy with a family problem who sometimes came in late, but always made it up and then some, was now a management problem.

It finally ended with "This just isn't working for me anymore, here is your paycheck!"  What caught me by surprise was the big sigh of relief from the other six employees.  They said "What took you so long to fire that turkey?"  I had no idea that they felt so strongly that he was holding them all back.  When I asked them why they had never complained to me about him, they responded that they thought I must have a good reason for putting up with it!

Another form of boat anchor is the person who always plays devil's advocate in every meeting. It often comes off as concern for the company not making a mistake.  For every plan of action they find a scenario where the plan will fail.  That of course is true of every plan, there is always a scenario where it will fail.  However business is a lot like baseball.  You don't win by batting 1000.  You win by batting 400 when everyone else is batting 350.  If your meetings are endless, and every meeting ends with a plan to look further and have another meeting then maybe you have a boat anchor on board.

A boat anchor can also be be a valued employee.  Growing companies often outgrow the skills of the people working in them.  If those people are in management positions you have a tough problem.  Often the skills required as a company grows are different than the skills needed when the company started.  To really grow, you must have the right people in the right seats, especially at the management level.  There is no tougher job in business than telling a valued employee that her skills are no longer up to the task.  They probably got in this position precisely because they were good at their job.  Yet not taking action has serious consequences too. You risk losing other good people at all levels.  People working under a poor manager often quit in frustration, or do poor work.  People who would be better in this position quit because they can see the anchor isn't going any place soon, so they are held back too.  Of course you have had this discussion already, and you watch closely for signs of change.  They do seem to be getting a little better.  So you give it another month, year, decade, my how time flies!

Cut the anchor loose, move them into a position they are good at, help them find another job, do it today!  The sudden acceleration towards your goals will shock you!  The anchor I cut loose?  We're still friends and I helped him get a job at one of our customers, where they love him.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Lunchroom

How much trouble could a lunchroom possibly be?  I was wondering about this because I kept hearing people mention the lunchroom whenever they took to complaining.  So I decided to look into it further and began asking about it.

It turns out that the company needed more office space.  They had two lunchrooms, a small one accessible through the office, and a larger one accessible from the warehouse.  So they decided to build a new lunchroom for the warehouse, and demolished the old one and turned it into office space.  While construction was going on everyone would share the small office lunchroom.  Unfortunately they started the construction without the proper permits, and got caught by the building inspector, who shut down construction on the new lunchroom.

A week or two earlier we had hired a new department manager to oversee the new manufacturing operation I was setting up.  I found him and told him I had a wonderful opportunity for him, he could finish the lunchroom!  He said he didn't know anything about construction, and why did I think the lunchroom was important to him?  I explained that the lunchroom was a sore spot with everyone from the CEO to the janitor. With everyone sharing one tiny lunch room the office people were upset about the crowding, and the warehouse people were upset about feeling unwanted.  Tempers were pretty short around lunch time.  So fixing this problem would take him from new guy to home town hero.

I also explained that he was the perfect person for this task, because he was brand new.  So he could talk to the building inspector and plead for mercy, because he had gotten this job dumped on him, and besides he knows nothing about construction!  I told him that the building inspector doesn't have an axe to grind with him, like he does with everyone else here.  So all you need to do is listen carefully and do exactly what he says.  I also suggested he ask the inspector for the names of some local contractors he might recommend.  Using one of them might ease the way towards getting a Certificate of Occupancy.

He contacted the building inspector and then met with him.  It turns out the inspector was worried about the lunchroom collapsing, because a beam under it was improperly installed!  He gave him a list of the violations that needed to be fixed, and the names of three contractors we might use.  We got prices from all three, and time estimates too.  Then we used those time estimates to estimate how long it would take our one maintenance employee to complete the work, working only the few hours a week he had available.

The manager went to the CEO with this proposal.  "We can finish the lunchroom in six to eight months using our own employees, at a cost of about $3,000.  Or we can hire a contractor recommended by the building inspector and be guaranteed the job will pass inspection in just two weeks, for $3,500."  After a year of foot dragging and complaints the CEO gave the go ahead for the contractor to finish the job.  The manager got a round of applause in the new lunchroom the first day it opened.  It wasn't his problem, but he solved it to the benefit of everyone, now when he needs a hand with getting something done people remember and step up to help.