That Won’t Work

When I was younger, I was frequently dismayed when someone expressed extreme negativity towards some plan or idea I had advanced. “Nobody does it that way,” they would say. Or, “I’ve heard that nobody makes money doing that.”

A few years ago, I experienced this same type of negativity when I expressed an interest in rental real estate. I was quickly barraged with a litany of reasons why doing so is a bad idea. What was particularly interesting was that none of the people who provided this advice had ever invested in real estate. And the people who had invested in real estate gave me very different advice.

It is certainly possible to have accurate information about some activity without actually engaging in it. For example, I have never stuck a sharp stick in my eye, but I am certain that it would hurt. My conclusion is drawn from the knowledge that sticking myself with a sharp object always hurts.

I responded to this negativity by mentioning that, with the proper systems in place, real estate can be far less of a hassle than these individuals believe. They responded with another chorus of negativity–specifically, they attacked my belief that systems can overcome virtually any problem. And that brings me to my point.

In simple terms, a system is a specific way of acting. It is a recognition of cause and effect. If you act a certain way, you get certain results. If we identify the actions that will get us the desired results, then success is largely a matter of taking those actions. (I say “largely” because there are factors outside of our control that we must consider.) Systems are the means by which we identify and document the actions we should take.

In the context of real estate, this means following the steps of successful real estate investors. More broadly, this means following the steps of those who have experienced success in any realm, including paint contracting.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that success is merely a matter of mindlessly following the dictates of someone else. We must always exercise our own independent judgment, and adapt our actions to our particular situation. But if we want to achieve success, we can save ourselves a lot of time, money, and grief by listening to those who have achieved it.

Keep it Simple

Many painting contractors express great resistance to developing systems for their business. One of the most common reasons I hear is that painting is too complex. There are too many variables involved and a painter must assess those variables to determine the proper course of action.

It is certainly true that there are many variables involved in painting a house. But this is not an argument against systems; it actually demonstrates the value of systems.

To illustrate, let us consider a typical exterior painting job performed by my company. The job consists of preparing and painting fascia, soffit, siding, doors, and windows. There is some minimal peeling on a few fascia boards, and several pieces of rotting siding that need to be replaced.

I strongly suspect that you could identify the steps required to prepare and paint this house, even with my minimal description. And I also strongly suspect that the order of your steps would be very similar to mine: Clean; scrape and sand the loose paint; replace the damaged wood; spot prime; caulk; paint. Further, I suspect that the steps for completing each of these tasks would also be similar. Why is this?

Even with all of the complexity involved in painting a house, there are certain tasks that must be performed in a certain order. (There may be some options, such as replacing damaged wood before scraping and sanding.) If we don’t complete these tasks, or do them in an improper order, we will not get the desired results.

You might think, “But every job is different. It isn’t as easy as A, B, C. Often, once we start the job we have to re-evaluate and modify our approach.” While this last is true, it doesn’t refute my point.

The process of re-evaluating requires certain steps. The process of identifying the specific conditions of the job requires certain steps. The process of deciding the best course of action requires certain steps. Indeed, everything associated with the job requires certain steps.

To a young child, learning to tie his shoes is a very complicated endeavor. He must learn specific steps and then master the physical skills involved. When he does this, what was once a complex process becomes quite easy. The same is true of painting a house.

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.

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