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.

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.

Change can be good

Painting contractors, like most people, do not easily embrace change. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence, most people will hold onto the known even when it is uncomfortable, rather than face the unknown associated with change. But improvement requires change–if we keep doing the same thing we are going to keep getting the same result.

Dan Miller addressed this in a post last year:

Change always presents the good news – bad news options. If you see change as threatening, you will likely see the bad news. If you believe progress always requires change, you will likely see the good news. If you can build your business in a way that embraces change, you will recognize ways to take advantage of change rather than feeling victimized by it. And it doesn’t matter if you are mowing yards, filling teeth, preaching sermons, writing books or building houses.

The fact is, progress does require change. Progress is the process of moving towards a goal, and if we are moving then something is in fact changing.

Business is a dynamic affair. Whether we like it or not, things are constantly changing. I-Pods, Facebook, and Tweeter did not exist just a few years ago. The Internet and email were fantasies when I started my business, and yet today they are a crucial component of many businesses, including painting contractors.

We have three options when it comes to change. We can completely reject it, refusing to do anything differently. The result is that the world will pass us by. We can reluctantly accept it, implementing change only when it becomes absolutely necessary. Or we can embrace it, recognizing that change can be good if it is the right type of change.

Eagerly embracing change may be scary. But if we do not change we cannot improve, we cannot grow our business, we cannot reach our goals. And that is a fact that will not change.

Growing grass and building a business

When I purchased my home the yard had been neglected for years. The yard consisted of piles of debris, a few splotches of grass, and bare dirt. I had never owned a home previously and knew virtually nothing about grass.

One thing I did know is that grass grows slowly. Watching grass grow is about as exciting as watching paint dry. On occasion I would sit in the middle of the yard with a cooler of beer, just to confirm my suspicions. And I was right.

I tried many things to get the grass to fill in my yard—sod, seeds, compost, top soil, playing Mozart, and more. Gradually the patches of green spread, but in some areas the grass would die as quickly as I could plant it.

I finally concluded that grass is stupid. So I built a large deck to cover many of the areas where grass refused to grow. I also concluded that the 11 oak trees on my lot did not allow enough sunshine into certain areas, and that was a large part of my problem. And this is the real point.

Grass needs certain things to grow. If the grass doesn’t have those things, it won’t grow, no matter how much water, fertilizer, or cussing you throw at it. The same is true of our paint contracting business—it needs certain things to grow and thrive. It needs marketing, financial stability, systems, and more. Without those things the business will shrivel up and die.

Creating a lawn of lush, green grass takes patience. So does building a business.

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