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.

Subs or employees, the issues are the same

Over the years, on many different boards, I have been asked dozens of times about my use of subcontractors. The questions vary, but the underlying premise seldom does. In short, many contractors (if not most) view subs as completely different from employees. In terms of essentials, this simply isn’t true.

Whether our production personnel are subs or employees, the basic issues remain the same:

  • Dependability
  • Quality of work
  • Customer service skills
  • Problem solving
  • And much more

In other words, production personnel are production personnel, no matter what label we attach to them. Certainly there are differences between subs and employees, but those differences aren’t essential. Those differences are merely details in how we pay, the control we exert, etc. These differences are certainly important, but they aren’t as important as some seem to believe.

The essential goal of our marketing is to generate leads. There are many ways to accomplish this. Whether we use the internet, the yellow pages, direct mail or any other medium is a detail. These are the means to our end.

The same applies to production. The essential goal of production is to put paint on the wall. There are many ways to accomplish this. Whether we use subs or employees, whether we pay hourly or piece work, these are simply the means to our end.

As business owners we strive to provide a superior overall experience for our customers. We have many, many options in what that experience looks like and how we provide it. Again, these are the means to our end.

While there are certainly wrong ways to accomplish any of our goals, there are many right ways to do so. For example, a marketing piece that says “Hey Bozo, call me if you want your house painted” won’t work well. But there are many messages that do work well.

Ultimately, our ends determine the means. What we want to accomplish determines how we accomplish it. At the end of the day, all that really matters is whether we accomplished the goal or not.

The issue of subs vs. employees isn’t the real issue. The real issue is how we solve the problems associated with production.

I painted a door

I recently painted my front door. Since I am a painting contractor, and have been one for 24 years, it may seem odd for me to make a point about painting a door. But my wife is very happy that I did so.

I rarely touch a paint brush. It isn’t that I dislike painting. I’d just rather spend my time doing other things, like writing blog posts. So, I hire people to do the painting and I spend my time on activities that are more enjoyable and interesting to me.

Some contractors fear what might happen if they aren’t on the job site. I fear what might happen if I am. I tend to make the painters nervous and distract them from doing their job. So I stay away as much as is possible and rarely visit a job site. (I think I made it to 2 job sites last month, and once was to look at additional work.)

My attitude is, if I need to baby sit grown adults then I probably have the wrong people working for me. If they can’t do the job I am paying them to do, then I should hire someone who can do the job. Of course, this is easier to say than to do. But it isn’t impossible.

I have a rather stringent system for hiring painters. My hiring process focuses more on character traits than painting skills. Painting skills are rather easy to identify–hand the guy a brush and have him paint a door. Character traits are more difficult to determine, and in my opinion, the primary source of problems with production personnel.

For example, if a painter doesn’t take directions well, or is habitually late, or is rude, or any number of other things, he can easily create problems on a job. No matter his skills, if he is rude to customers you are going to have problems. If he is regularly late, you are going to have problems.

So, if you find yourself complaining that good help is hard to find, maybe you should re-consider your hiring practices. Good painters do exist. So do good people. The trick is finding them.

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