Keeping your train on the tracks

Keeping your train on the tracks

Finan, Tom


Not too long ago I had a conversation with a representative of a vendor from whom I was considering buying a software package. The package would allow our company to perform an essential function that had been relegate ed, at significant expense, to an outside vendor. While bringing the work in-house promised a significant learning curve and much initial stress for our employees, it would also result in reducing our costs in that area by half.

“You know,” I told the sales rep, “I’ve been studying this issue for years, and I just never felt comfortable with pulling the trigger because it’s a key component of our operation.”

The rep assured me that I was certainly not alone-that many similar businesses were currently considering the same change for much the same reasons. “When the economy’s good and the trains are running on time,” he said, “nobody wants to look too closely at what it’s really costing,” he said.

Well, the trains these days certainly aren’t running on time. In fact, there have been a lot of corporate train wrecks out there, and many owners of smaller, privately held businesses are having a great deal of difficulty keeping their operations on the tracks. We publish magazines that report on several industries, and the difficulties our readers in those industries are having impacts not only them, but also all the vendors who deal with them.

It’s not a recession, but it’s darned close. Instead of shrinking in the second quarter as many forecasters had feared, the nation’s output of goods and services rose 0.2 percent, at an annual rate, the government said. While that’s good news, it still means that we’ve got some very tough times ahead of us. People who have been in the work force for 10 years or less have never encountered anything like this. Even those of us who have been through generations of construction cycles, downturns, and outright recessions have had our memories dimmed.

Years of prosperity covered up a multitude of sins, sloppiness, overruns, and just plain dumb business decisions by everyone, including yours truly. But we can’t count on the economy to keep growing us out of waste and stupidity.

Construction-and architectural painting with it-have so far been less affected than have other aspects of the economy. While the major paint companies are reporting down sales and profits, their business from professional painting contractors remains one of the their strongest segments. In St. Louis, where this magazine is headquartered, the commercial construction market remains very strong-a result of significant backlog from up times.

Will it remain that way? No way. Things may have already started to move downward in your market, as some of my contractor buddies have told me. But whether you’re stable or down, whether your operation is tight as can be or loose as a goose, a look at the manner in which you operate is long past overdue.

As you take that long, hard look, I would offer you some major caveats. All of them involve protecting your most important asset-your employees.

You are going to need your team behind you to implement tough changes. Make them feel important by involving them in the study of the issues involving cost cutting and productivity from the very beginning. Keep them up to speed. They may not agree with every final decision that is made, but they’ll support you if they feel that their input has been valued.

Change is stressful. Be concerned about the welfare of your people. Have the patience to make things clear. If you’re looking for information regarding pricing, or other aspects of your operation, put the instructions in writing and give them clear deadlines as to when you want the information….then follow up. Let them know that you appreciate their extra efforts.

Take responsibility for both your actions and for those of your team. Expect team members to perform, but avoid any finger-pointing if a cost or productivity improvement doesn’t work out quite the way you’d expected. By constructively examining what went wrong, you stand a better chance of fixing the problem-and of having your employees participate in arriving at solutions to other issues. Folks who are paralyzed at the thought of failure will be useless the next time you ask them to participate. It reminds me of the old nonsense rhyme:

I never get to drive the train,

Or even ring the bell,

But let the darned thing jump the track,

And see who catches hell.

There’s no question that we’re in for a bumpy train ride ahead over the next year or so. But if you begin now to enlist your employees immediately in the search for smoother routes, you’ll avoid getting derailed, and come out the other end of the tunnel with a better company for having made the effort.

Copyright Finan Publishing Company, Inc. Sep/Oct 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved