Imposing Change

If you are like me, you are constantly looking for ways to improve your business. If you are like me, you often come up with some change that you are convinced will make your business better. And if you are like me, you announce the change with great fanfare only to have it fall flat on its face it a short time.

It took me a long time to realize why this happened. Despite the best of intentions, I wasn’t eliminating frustrations. I was simply creating new ones by imposing change on people who didn’t want change.

Most people are resistant to change. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We will often tolerate situations that we don’t like rather than take the risk of change.

The known is comfortable. The unknown is scary. We can learn to adapt to the known. The unknown presents us with uncertainty.

When we impose changes on our employees, we are forcing them into an uncomfortable situation. We are demanding that they accept uncertainty. No matter how valid and potentially beneficial the change, we will experience resistance to the change. We are frustrating our employees.

People resist change that they do not understand. But explaining the potential benefits does not necessarily give them understanding. That’s only one part of change. If we really want buy-in, then we must address all four quadrants of change.

  1. The benefits of change
  2. The pain of change
  3. The benefits of the status quo
  4. The pain of the status quo

The failure to address all four quadrants is one of the biggest mistakes that business owners make when trying to improve their business.

A system for developing systems

Most professional painting contractors understand the importance of developing systems for their business. For those who want to get out of the bucket, it is absolutely imperative. Unfortunately, developing systems can be a very imposing task, and many contractors don’t know where to start. However, it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. If they use a system, the process can be much easier and far more effective. In other words, use a system to develop systems.

To illustrate, let us say that you find your crews frequently doing work in the wrong order. They wind up wasting time and cause you unnecessary frustration. How can you correct this situation without being a baby sitter?   The first step is to identify the problem, or more specifically, the undesired result. In this case, the undesired result is wasted time. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is. The next step is to identify what actions (or inactions) are causing the result. The undesired results have a cause, and if you want different results, different actions must be taken.

Returning to our example, if the crew is doing work in the wrong order, the solution is to identify the proper order. For example, for an interior repaint this might consist of the following tasks:

  • Clear the room
  • Prep the surfaces to be painted
  • Paint
  • Clean up
  • Put the room back in order

Of course, there are many steps involved in each of these tasks. For example, prepping a room might involve drywall repairs, sanding woodwork, caulking, masking, and more. The process of painting a room might involve dozens of separate tasks and steps. And that is usually where the process of developing systems becomes overwhelming. Many contractors think that they need to develop a procedure for every one of those tasks, and they think that they have to develop all of them at once. If they feel overwhelmed, they might wind up developing none of them.

However, the chances are good that the crew is generally doing the work in the proper order. It is unlikely that they are doing the clean up before they do the prep. Usually, the problem occurs in a fairly narrow range of activities, such as in the prep. That is where you should focus your efforts. In other words, return to step one above–identify the undesired result and then identify the action or inaction that is causing that result.

Let us say that you figure out that during prep the crew is doing drywall repairs last. As a result, they wind up waiting for the patch to dry and the start of painting gets delayed. Your solution then, is to identify the proper order for prep. As an example:

  • Repair all drywall cracks
  • Sand and caulk woodwork
  • Remove switch plate covers
  • Mask

This order allows the crew to be performing other tasks while drying occurs. There are, of course, multiple ways of addressing this issue. Quick set could be used or multiple rooms could be prepped at once. The point is, identify the order that you want followed, and then document those steps.

Your preferences may seem perfectly logical to you. You might wonder why anyone would do the work in a different order. But the fact is, unless you have a highly unusual crew, they are not mind readers. They don’t know your preferences unless you tell them. They may have learned a certain order to do the work, and have never questioned it. They may not be concerned with efficiency. Regardless, until you tell them your preferences, they simply don’t know.

Once you have addressed, and hopefully eliminated, this problem, you can move to the next. For example, you may then find that clean up isn’t as efficient as it could be and should be. Develop a process for that issue.   In short, this system allows you to address the things that aren’t going right, rather than trying to fix things that aren’t broken. It allows you to address the things that are causing the most problems. And, as you reduced or eliminate those big problems, you can then move to smaller issues.   You wouldn’t try to perform every task involved in painting a house at one time. Don’t try developing systems that way either.

What book are you writing?

For the past fifteen months, I have been writing a book. The process has been, at various times, frustrating, invigorating, and exhausting. But it has always been interesting, and I have discovered many things about myself, the writing process, and business during this time.

One of the more interesting realizations is that writing a book is much like business.

When I began the book, I thought that I had a pretty clear idea about what I wanted to say. As I researched the topic, worked on an outline, and wrote my first drafts, I realized that I had a lot of confusion. My idea was just a vague approximation, and I didn’t have nearly enough to say about the topic to fill a book.

Interestingly, that is also how I started my business. I had a vague idea what I wanted the business to be like, but I knew next to nothing about marketing, accounting, or, for that matter, painting. It wasn’t nearly enough to build a business.

For my book, I had to rethink the entire topic. I faced a number of choices. I could abandon the project. I could plod along with my original idea and write something that would be mediocre. Or, I could do more research and refine my idea.

I did the same with my business. I realized that, if I was going to build a successful business, I had to refine my concept of the business. I had to get more information and integrate that with my personal goals. Vague ideas were only going to lead me to vague results.

Writing a book can be a daunting task. You start with nothing but a blank piece of paper and an idea. You can put anything you desire on the paper, from the most eloquent prose to incoherent gibberish that would embarrass a third-grader. The same is true of business. You start with nothing but an idea. You can put anything you want into your business, from a well-devised plan to nothing more than hopes, wishes, and pipe dreams.

In both cases, a good idea is only that—an idea. It must be executed. It must be made real. Without action, an idea is just idle fantasy.

In both cases, as the project progresses, new discoveries, realizations, and understandings must be integrated. My plans have changed. I have had to adapt.

In my book, numerous times I have found myself deleting large sections. At times it was painful because I really liked what I was deleting. But it simply did not fit. It wasn’t appropriate to my goal, and no matter how brilliant the writing, I had to keep the end goal in mind. I have had to do the same thing with my business. I have had to fire employees whom I liked because they were not contributing to the goals of my business. I have had to quit offering services that were not profitable. These decisions can be painful, but they are necessary.

In my book, I get to decide what chapters to include and how many. The same is true in business—I have had many chapters in my business. I get to decide what to title my book and the cover art. I also get to decide the image that my company will present to customers. I get to decide if I will write for a narrow, select group of readers, or write for the masses. I get to decide whether my company will do high-end, custom painting or high production, blow and go painting.

In some ways, these realizations are not particularly startling. But new understandings do not have to be life altering to be beneficial. Sometimes they simply reinforce what we know to be true. Sometimes they give us a slightly different perspective and allow us to make small, but important changes.

Owning a business is much like writing a book. We face many, many choices, and the decisions that we make determine the results that we will experience. When we don’t like the results, we can edit, delete, or amend. But in the end, we are responsible for the results. In the end, our choices determine whether we write a best-seller or a piece of trash.

Practicing what I preach

For many years, I have been an avid and vocal advocate for developing systems. I have, on occasion, received considerable criticism for this advocacy. I’ve been told that paint contracting has too many variables to systemize, that markets are different, that I am being simplistic, and much more. I have shrugged off these criticisms, reminding myself of a line Richard Kaller often used, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

In a certain sense, I can understand the criticisms. The concept of systemization, and everything it implies, is absolutely foreign to many people. So, when they hear me offer systems as the solution to their problems, it can come off as simplistic.

But the truth is, many contractors make the process of owning and operating a business far more complex than it needs to be. Sound business principles are sound business principles, no matter the type of business, the geographic location, or anything else. Planning, knowing your numbers, differentiating your company, learning from successful members of your industry—these principles and more are applicable to every business, including paint contracting.

I have previously mentioned my recent foray into the world of real estate investing. Two years ago, when I first seriously considered doing so, real estate was a mystery to me. I had no idea how to locate properties, how to analyze their financial potential, how to estimate repairs, how to locate and screen tenants, or any of the other aspects of rental housing. In addition, I heard about myriad options and approaches: foreclosures, short sales, hard money, conventional financing, single-family, multi-family, and much more. It seemed extremely complex and potentially overwhelming.

And so, I practiced what I preach. I found mentors. I learned the numbers. I planned. I developed systems.

In the process, two interesting things occurred. First, what was once very complex, confusing, and potentially paralyzing became understandable and manageable. Second, I received confirmation that systems truly work in any business.

Consider this: In the past month we have bought 2 properties. We placed a tenant in a third property. We closed on a cash-out mortgage on a fourth property. When I started, this would have been unimaginable. I would have thought that to do this, I would be working ungodly hours and be stressed to the max. But because I followed my own advice, I have probably invested less than 10 hours a week on these activities.

Interestingly, in educating myself about real estate, I have heard the same advice that I have been preaching for years. Experts in the field, almost without exception, suggest learning from successful investors, developing a plan, learning the numbers, and creating systems. In other words, apply sound business principles.

Admittedly, developing a plan, learning the numbers, and creating systems takes a lot of work. But that is how the complex becomes simple. That is how we identify what is important and what is trivial. That is how we learn to take consistent actions so that we achieve consistent results.

Whether you are reading this on a desktop computer, a laptop, or an I-Phone, the device you are using is extremely complex. The technology involved in writing and transmitting this post to thousands of readers was unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet, even those with few computer skills are able to use and benefit from this sophisticated technology.

You have probably never met Steven Jobs, Michael Dell, or Bill Gates. Yet, you can use their creations successfully. They do not need to micro-manage the manufacture of their products, much less visit each end user and supervise the use of those products. Their products are easy to use because they developed systems.

After 25 years as a painting contractor, I can safely say that their products are far more complicated and more variables are involved than in painting a house. If they can make those sophisticated products user-friendly, you can certainly do the same with your business.

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