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A month ago I caught up with some friends for a drink and a chat to set the worlds to rights. I should explain that means we had a really good chat about everything that was bugging us and shared our various opinions on how to go about fixing it. Back home in Scotland, it's a great pastime, in part I think as a way of venting and letting off steam but also for getting advice, it's not done enough if you ask me.
Sam, one of the group who runs a garage was complaining that he kept running out of things like brake pads for the most common vehicles, ok he can get them quickly but if his mechanics would just do what they needed to it wouldn't happen and he told them so, in no uncertain terms, they would have no excuse now. One of his mechanics was slow and not the best worker, (he may have explained it differently, but we'll skip over that) and didn't see it as his job to worry about that. The mechanic, we'll call him Bob, kept saying that he was just a mechanic, why was it important to him to make sure they had brake pads in stock. I have to admit I gave a chuckle, both at Sam's believe that making it firmly clear would solve it and that the mechanic saw himself as 'just a mechanic' so part of a team or as a key part of a wider ecosystem, Sam understandably wanted to know why I laughed so I explained, that was me 25 years ago!
A long time ago, in land far away, ok 25 years or so ago after I graduated I was working in an electronics plant in Scotland as a graduate engineer, I had my honours degree but as the Colin, Operations Director rightly pointed out at the time I didn't know anything yet, at the time I don't think I was impressed by that but it was so very true. Their solution, and it was a great one, was to put me on the shop floor for 6 months as an operator to learn the business of what they did and all the stuff the operators had to put up with, that we would later help fix.
A few months went by and I was working away on a line making a board, my part was to solder in some through hole LED's and add some links to the board that decided the configuration. We had to do 50 of these boards an hour, it was tedious, did I mention it was also on night-shift? Well, it must have been around 5am in the morning and who was standing in front of me but Colin, the Operations Director, "Who's it goin Ginger?" he said, it's ok I said, night-shift is hard I said, he gave a chuckle " aye, and that 4am blood sugar drop is a killer isn't it, you need to remember that when you grow up and become an engineer, so what are you doing here" he asked. That's when I said the words that triggered one of the biggest changes in my thinking ever, "I'm just soldering LED's and putting on links to this board". Colin drew a deep breath, the kind you do when your child tells you 5 mins before you are going out the door that they forgot that their shoes got soaked in a puddle. "Oh, just soldering LED's and links, don't you know what the board is and what those parts do?" I shook my head, Colin motioned for the team leader to pop over, Daisy he said, tell Ginger here about the board and the job he is doing, with that Colin turned to go with a "see you in an hour for your revised answer!"
Daisy was a brilliant team leader and went on to become MD of another local company, she was originally from Orkney and had one of those accents that was like honey. Right lad, she said, this is a really wonderful product you are getting to build, this is a monitoring unit for retirement homes, they put one of these into every room in the place and it links back to a control room that alerts them if the is an issue. So, if your gran was in there and she fell or hurt herself then this unit ensures she gets the help she needs, it could save her life. She gave me one of those looks that was about ensuring I was actually thinking about what she said, with a nod from her head she enticed an expression on my face that said I clear got the picture. She could have left it there and it may have been enough, but she didn't, she went further, those LED's you are soldering on are there to do a couple of things, what do you think they are? Well that seemed obvious I thought, they show it's on, and communicating I said, well obviously yes it does that she said but what else?what else? that's' what they do, they show it's on and sending information I said. Ok, stop being an engineer and now be a grandson she said and try again, if the lights go out how does your gran feel? I thought for a minute and the wheels started to turn, slowly, well if the lights aren't working, she won't know if the system is working, aye Daisy said, go on. I guess if it's not working she's going to call someone to check it, she looked at me.. STOP BEING AN ENGINEER she said… try again you almost had it, I thought for a moment, well she'll certainly be a little worried I guess, maybe feel a little less secure perhaps that she can't get the help she needs if it's needed, more vulnerable? Exactly she said, and those links you are adding, they make sure that the system doesn't interfere with anything in the house and send false signals or worse, don't send a signal.
Daisy went on, you aren't just soldering LED's and links, you are giving an elderly person comfort and security, you are helping them feel safer and worry less in their own place, you are helping them live a better life, now I don't know about you but I think that's pretty wonderful thing to be able to do, to be able to do so much by such a contribution is an amazing gift don't you think? I don't ever want you to think that you are 'just' doing a job, I want you to think about the whole picture, the entire ecosystem, who do you help, if it doesn't go right, who does it impact and what can you do to avoid that ever happening. I want your ideas for that, everyone's ideas for that so that your gran never has to worry about feeling insecure in her home, can you do that? I could and I did, from that point on I can honestly say my thinking changes, Daisy in one 5 minute conversation changed my entire way of thinking and my focus on what I was doing, she also re-enforced why her team loved her so much, I swear they would have walked over hot coals for her, myself included.
An hour later Colin was back at my work bench, Right then Ginger, he said, what did you learn from Daisy? I'm keeping people safe I said, and that's really important and I've pulled a few boards back I wasn't happy with. He smiled, Daisy is brilliant isn't she, and I bet before the day is out you call your gran! Keep learning ginger, we'll make an engineer of you yet, Colin smiled, turned and went off for a chat with Daisy which both clearly enjoyed.
He was right though, I called my gran later that day.
After retelling the story to Sam and being called a big softy, he thought for a moment. Ok so I'm going to try this with my mechanic, we'll see if he has anything between his ears!
I caught up with Sam a few weeks later to find out how it had gone with his less than enthusiastic mechanic. He's like a different Man said Sam, it's amazing! Sam explained that he attempted to paint a picture in the same way as Daisy had, what happens he said when a mother and her young kids drive in here to get us to look at their breaks because she's worried after they felt soft and they almost couldn't stop. What if we go to get the new pads and we don't have them, they drive out to go somewhere else, but on the way, there's a crash and they at best end up in hospital, at worst…
How did he take it? I asked, Sam thought for a moment, it's like a light has gone on in this guy, he's not only doing it better himself, he's started some of that Kanban stuff you keep banging on about and helps the others, he even brought in a big teddy bear and has it in the workshop with a sign on it, please keep my owner safe!.. Sam looked slightly choked up, it's amazing, and, he said, in the last week I haven't heard anyone saying they are just a mechanic, it's superhero this and Batman that, safety guy and a bunch of other stuff, it's just a different place to be he said, one of the guys even says we should get toys into the waiting room for the kids when they come in with mum or dad to pick up the cars.
When people say they are Just this or Just that, or Just doing it's a clear indication that they aren't connecting with the wider purpose of what you do, not thinking about who is using your product or service and the benefits that it's giving them. That means you don't really have a culture that understands and buys in to what you do, it's very hard to get pride into it. By focusing on ensuring everyone knows the story of your products and services, of why your organisation exists and their part of it pretty soon everyone realises that they aren't just there, they are part of a wider, more important picture, when that happens, when the Just is removed, what's left is awe-inspiring and frankly unstoppable, it's like supercharging your organisation.
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