When eating an elephant, two mouths are better than one

A few weeks ago I addressed the proper way to “eat an elephant” –one bite at a time. The first “bite” is identifying the cause of the problems and frustrations that create stress and consume your time. The second “bite” is identifying the actions that will create the results that you want.

As with eating an elephant, there can be many different options. Just as you might use different methods to cook the elephant, you might have to try different methods to find the best actions to get the desired results.

Too often contractors get locked into a “my way or the highway” mentality. While there is nothing wrong with having preferred ways of performing a task, there is usually more than one way to do that task and still get the desired results. For example, you can degloss a surface several different ways or use different sized brushes for cutting in. Getting locked into a single way of performing a task can often be a cause of frustration and stress.

In this regard, it is crucial to focus on the results rather than the method of getting there. You have a certain standard of quality that you demand, and you have a certain budget for the job. So long as those criteria are met, does it really matter how it is accomplished?

Certainly there are methods of performing a task that are more efficient, produce better results, or are somehow better. But “better” is contextual, and your employees are a part of that context. You may prefer a 3″ brush for cutting in, but if your employees can use a 2.5″ brush and get acceptable results, what do you accomplish by insisting that they use a 3″ brush?

Many of the frustrations and problems that contractors endure are a result of their own actions. They frequently want to dictate method and assume that the desired results will follow naturally. But that is putting the cart before the horse. And it can also lead to employees who do not perform efficiently, seem unmotivated, and do not achieve the desired results.

Let us say, for example, that your employee finds a 3″ brush uncomfortable to work with. He has difficulty controlling it, or thinks that it holds too much paint, or for whatever reason simply doesn’t like it. If you demand that he use a 3″ brush, rather than one he prefers, he will likely resent your demand. Add in a few other similar demands and suddenly your employee views you as unreasonable, and his performance will show it.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that you should give employees carte blanche to do their work any way they prefer. But if you focus on results you can identify what matters and what doesn’t. And what matters is getting acceptable quality in an acceptable amount of time. If this can be accomplished with a toothbrush or a push broom is irrelevant.

The point of this is that involving employees is often the “missing link” when developing systems. Frequently a contractor will develop a procedure and then thrust in on his employees. They don’t necessarily understand or agree with it, with the result that they will feign acceptance and then continue as before. Trust me, I know this from experience.

If you want better results, involve your employees. After all, if you want to eat an elephant, two mouths are better than one.

Do you have a team?

A few years ago a family member started a new job and he lamented the fact that he is on a team of one. Even though he works for a very large corporation, he was working on an assignment by himself. And that assignment involved a topic with which he had little experience.

My immediate thought was that this is no different from the typical small business owner. Most of us likely started our business as a team of one, and most of us gave ourselves an assignment with which we had little experience–operating a business. This certainly was the case in my situation.

When I started my business, I assumed that common sense and hard work would be sufficient to address the issues that would come up. While both are important, and certainly help, they simply are not sufficient. The result was a continual process of trial and error, which was often costly, stressful, and inefficient.

On occasion I would solicit input from family or friends regarding specific issues. While their advice was often very helpful, they didn’t understand enough about my industry to provide the kind of assistance I sometimes needed. So I continued to plod along, making slow but gradual progress (with occasional pauses to pull out large tufts of hair).

The Internet certainly helped change this. With the advent of chatrooms and forums, I suddenly had access to hundreds of other people who had “been there, done that.” I was no longer dependent on trial and error.

Of course, the quality of the advice offered on the Internet varies considerably. As I identified those individuals or organizations that offered sound advice, I slowly began to include them on my “team.” In addition, I was better able to communicate my vision to my employees and subcontractors. This too improved the quality of my team.

Every painting contractor should have a team, even if he is a one-man shop. Obviously a smaller business will have a smaller team, but getting quality advice and input is important no matter the size of a company. Even a one-man shop will have need for occasional advice concerning legal, accounting, marketing, or other issues. Having competent professionals available–professionals who have some understanding of your industry–can help avoid costly mistakes.

Your team can also consist of others in your industry. While a direct competitor will not be likely to share as much information, general discussions can be beneficial. If you are in a large market, there are likely many in your industry who are not direct competitors.

Running a small business can be a lonely endeavor at times. There are many ups and downs, many issues that must be addressed, and many options. Building a team can be an effective way to avoid the problems of trial and error, and build a better business.

Your painting business is a lot like golf

In an age of prima donna sports stars, one group of professional athletes stands head and shoulders above others. One group of professional athletes embody everything that is good about sports. That group is the men and women who play professional golf. (There are of course, some exceptions.)

Consider a two facts about professional golfers: they keep their own score and they call penalties on themselves. Can you imagine a football player calling a penalty on himself? Or a pitcher calling balls and strikes on his own pitches?

Golf is unique in that the players themselves apply the rules. It isn’t uncommon for a player to disqualify himself from a tournament after learning he had broken an obscure rule. Even more remarkable is that this often occurs the next day!

The essence of sports is the pursuit of a goal within a clearly defined set of rules. It is this pursuit that makes watching sports enjoyable. In most sports this pursuit involves a direct competition with others, and the competitors generally take actions to impose obstacles to fellow competitors.

Again, golf is unique in that the players do not directly compete with one another. The primary competition is against the course—an inanimate object that provides the same obstacles and challenges to each competitor. The secondary competition occurs within each player—he must control his emotions during the inevitable highs and lows that occur within a round.

Indeed, golf is largely a mental game. Players do not have to react quickly. They have time between shots to identify and consider their options.

The same is true of a painting business. We have time to plan our shots. We have options that we must consider. We must make decisions. And then we must execute those decisions. Like golf, business combines the mental and the physical. Unlike golf, business is not a game.

The easy way to eat an elephant

If you have ever tried to eat an elephant it is likely that you quickly realized how daunting the task is. After all, an elephant has about 1,000 pounds of edible meat– enough to fill the freezer compartment on a typical refrigerator 10 times. You had better be very, very hungry, have a small army to feed, or…

…Consume the elephant over a long period of time.

Granted, you have probably never tried to eat an entire elephant, and certainly not in one sitting. But many contractors attempt to “eat an elephant” when they develop systems for their business. They look at the immensity of the project and quickly become overwhelmed. However, if they tried to “eat the elephant” in manageable portions–say, one pound a day–they would make steady progress and in time would complete the task.

The same applies to developing systems.   Just as it is impossible to eat an elephant in a few weeks or even a few months, it is impossible to develop systems for your business in a short period of time. But if you approach it one bite–one process or procedure–at a time the task is much less overwhelming.   There are a lot of options when it comes to eating an elephant. You can eat the more tender and tasty parts first, or take on the less favorable cuts, or alternate between the two. The same is true of developing systems–you can tackle simple procedures first, or focus on more complex processes, or alternate.

From a practical perspective, the most effective approach is to identify issues that create the most problems or frustrations. Eliminating these problems can greatly reduce the stress in your life and free up a lot of your time.   For example, let us say that you have to spend a lot of time on the job supervising your employees. This prevents you from leaving the job site to meet with other customers, work on estimates, or work on your business. However, if level of supervision was not required you would suddenly have an abundance of time. But how do you accomplish this?

The key to addressing the problem is to identify the cause. This of course, is easier said than done and it can take some time to identify the real cause. The “obvious” answer is seldom the right answer. For example, it would be easy to claim that your employees are lazy, unmotivated, and don’t care about quality. It is easy to pin the blame on others. But that won’t solve your problem.

Perhaps you haven’t made your expectations clear. Perhaps you haven’t provided proper training. Perhaps you haven’t provided adequate motivation. Perhaps you haven’t taken the actions required to get the results that you want.

Identifying the cause is only the first step, albeit a crucial step. It will tell you what actions (or lack of actions) are creating the undesired results. But it won’t tell you what actions are required to get the results that your want. That will be the topic of a future post.

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