CWB December 2001

Are You Busy? Or Dizzy?

It's a thin line. Make sure your company is not just 'running around in circles.'

By Anthony G. Noel

Anybody who has ever been to a minor league baseball game has probably seen some version of what the Reading Phillies (my nearest minor league franchise) call the "Dizzy Bat Spin Race."

It happens during one of the between-innings breaks. Two "lucky" contestants subject themselves to public ridicule (not to mention severe intestinal trauma, given their likely intake of ballpark food prior to the race) by taking to the field, standing a bat on end, placing their foreheads squarely on the bats' butts and, while holding the bats with both hands, circling them 10 times. Then they stand up (or try to) and dash for the objective: a wildly rocking (to their eyes) finish line about 25 yards away.

For those who have never witnessed a Dizzy Bat Spin Race, there is just one word to describe it: Slapstick. And that's being kind.

Unfortunately, the Dizzy Bat Spin Race is an excellent metaphor for the way some people run their companies. They stay plenty busy, but make little money - and wind up dizzy (or suffering from severe intestinal trauma of another sort, known as ulcers). The line between constructively busy and destructively dizzy is a thin one. There are plenty of completely preventable practices that can turn even the best-intentioned businesses into Dizzy Bat Spin Races.

Here is a simple test that may help you determine if you are running the right kind of race.

  1. Do you do cost accounting on every job that goes through your shop?
  2. When a prospective client gives you a price at which you "must" do a job, do you jiggle your estimate to make it "work" at the number you are given?
  3. Do you regularly move pushy clients' "must-have" jobs ahead of others, wreaking havoc on your production schedule?
  4. Do you even have a production schedule?
  5. Is your workforce stretched to its absolute limit in terms of hours worked?
  6. Do you expect your workers to meet unrealistic job deadlines?
  7. Do you know what your employees do for fun? How many children they have? What their long-term goals and aspirations are?
  8. Which is more important to you: Your employees or your customers?
  9. Are you working more than 60 hours per week on a regular basis? Are any of your employees working more than 55 hours per week on a regular basis?
  10. Is your business making the kind of money you want it to?

Dizzy Bat Spin Race answers: 1) no; 2) yes; 3) yes; 4) no; 5) yes; 6) yes; 7) no, no and no; 8) customers; 9) yes and yes; 10) no.

Ah, question number 10. It always comes down to the bottom line, doesn't it? Yep. Sure does. And if you responded to most - heck, even some - of the questions above with Dizzy Bat Spin Race answers, you shouldn't be surprised if you answered "no" to the one about the bottom line.

As for the rest of the questions, just as it always comes down to that bottom line in the end, it always begins with #1, cost accounting. How can you know how well you are doing if you aren't keeping track of the hours you work on a job and the cost of the materials and overhead that go into it? You can't. Don't be dizzy.

#2. When you let a client name his price, he ceases being a client - and you join the ranks of the dizzy.

#3. If you are willing to put one customer's project on hold in order to kowtow to the time demands of another, you are allowing the latter customers' inability to get organized make you disorganized. Remember one of my favorite sayings: "A lack of planning on their part does not constitute an emergency on our part."

You may argue, "But if we help them out of this bind, won't they become loyal customers?" No. They won't. Instead, you will train them to become disrespectful-of-your-time customers (who probably pay late to boot, since you have already proven for them that your time is unimportant to you). Don't be dizzy; know when to put your foot down.

#4. What? No production schedule? Please. Don't be dizzy.

#5. When you stretch your workers to the limits of their physical and cognitive endurances, you further demonstrate that you have no regard for time. And even less for them. Don't be dizzy.

#6. Unrealistic deadlines feed both of the foregoing problems. They force you to push projects ahead of others and to force more hours from your employees than is safe or considerate. Don't be dizzy, or the next phone call you make could be to the insurance company to file an accident report.

#7. When was the last time you casually talked to your employees about their lives away from the shop? Just a quick glance around their work areas will usually yield clues about what they are into and allow you to strike up a conversation. Short conversations about their children, hobbies and especially their long-term goals are great time investments that will give you far more insight into what drives your workers, and how to use them to best advantage - theirs and yours. Don't be dizzy; take an interest in your employees' lives.

#8. This is a no-brainer. Even if you have never read this column before, if you don't know the answer, you are terminally dizzy. Customers come and go. While employees do, too, happy employees can directly reduce customer turnover by virtue of the quality work they tend to produce.

#9. Working big hours week-in and week-out is a sure symptom of dizziness. While it is generally cheaper to offer overtime than to hire additional people, it is important to recognize that hours which prevent you and your employees from having lives outside of work can cost you big-time in the long term.

Some overtime is good. Too much is poison, and the extent to which you insist that employees work a lot of it requires a good antidote. If you are always working and they are, too, it's time to bring in help or sub some work out.

It is easy to fall into traps that spin us around and make us too dizzy to think straight. But like contestants in the Dizzy Bat Spin Race, we bring the dizziness upon ourselves, so only we can stop it.

Think about what would happen if we answered the questions in our little test correctly. We would know what jobs cost us, we would insist on getting our prices and we would have happy employees producing jobs in a timely, predictable way - all of which make for happy customers, employees and owners. And a better bottom line.

I wish you a holiday season filled with peace and love, and a prosperous, happy New Year.


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