CWB March 2002

Bad Tidings

Nobody likes to convey bad news. Knowing what caused the problem can minimize the need to do so.

By Anthony Noel

Last month we discussed the unfortunate necessity of letting customers, vendors and employees know bad news which directly affects them - something none of us like to do. Some of us choose to put off the task until the last minute or decide not to do it all. Then, we wonder why people get upset.

Bad news comes with doing business, and the ability to convey it is crucial. But if it seems as if you are constantly in the position of disappointing customers or vendors or employees, it's a sure sign of a larger problem.

Before I go any further, there is a group out there I would specifically like to address. You know who you are - the hardheaded, the unbending, the guys rigid enough to believe that all your problems are caused by someone else. You are members of the Disgruntled Woodworkers Guild (DWG), and you are deluding yourselves.

The fact is that problems are your fault pretty much 100 percent of the time, and the extent to which you are willing to take ownership of problems and dedicate yourself to resolving them greatly influences your ability to succeed in business.

If you are agreeing to deadlines that are too short, that's your fault. If you are not paying your vendors on time because you are not getting paid on time (because, perhaps, you are missing too-short deadlines?!), that's your fault. And if you have promised your employees the moon and the stars but they are not making a decent wage, yup, that's your fault, too.

Finding a better way

You can change all that. You begin by discovering where problems start, and their source often is poor decision-making. For example, you have been too busy to sell new work, so you decide to take a low-margin job to keep things rolling. Big mistake.

If you are not sure a job is profitable, you can't take it. It's that simple. Yet many woodworkers take such jobs anyway. Then, when they have sufficiently perturbed the customer by doing sub-par work in an effort to make money that wasn't in the job in the first place, they call a meeting of the DWG and complain about things to their fellow Disgruntleds.

But maybe you are different. Maybe you will learn from your mistakes. Will you?

In business, that's always the question. That, in fact, is the whole aim of business and the key to profitability. First, you understand how mistakes happen and establish a process that minimizes the opportunities for them to occur. This greater efficiency enables you to make more money while producing better products, which increases demand, until you are forced to reengineer the process to again increase efficiency, to produce better products...get the idea?

So where do problems come from? We mentioned poor decision-making, and one way or another, it's usually the culprit. But bad decisions take many forms.

You hire key people without checking their references. Bad decision. You let your production manager run the whole manufacturing operation, not caring enough yourself to learn at least the rudiments of the process, including potential bottlenecks, reliability of equipment, or the names and roles of key guys on the shop floor. Another bad decision. You take jobs and enter into contracts carelessly or based on "gut feelings." Need I say it?

There is much to be said for trusting one's instincts in many aspects of life. But in business, there is a stronger argument in favor of running the numbers. And in truth, that's all we are talking about here. Running the numbers. Proving the theorem. Making decisions based on known, demonstrable facts, rather than what you think or hope or feel to be the case.

So where do demonstrable facts come from? Lots of places. But paperwork - specifically, a paper trail - is one key source.

You keep track of time worked on a job or create written employee evaluations or file a paid invoice away. Why? For recordkeeping purposes, certainly. But if you are not taking advantage of the information such paperwork yields, you are setting yourself up to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Use job labor reports as predictors of how long future jobs will take. Use employee evaluations to hold workers accountable for their professional development (and to hold yourself accountable for rewarding them as they achieve the objectives you set for them). Use invoices consistently paid in-full and on-time as evidence that even a great customer can hit a rough spot.

These are just a few examples of the secondary (but in my opinion, far more important) role that typical pieces of paperwork can play in helping you avoid problems. We are talking about problems in major areas here - timely delivery of jobs, employee relations and vendor relations.

Another source of information is people. Your people. Your vendors' salespeople. And, of course, your customers. There are two factors which influence the quality of the information derived from people: (1) the person's truthfulness, and (2) your ability to listen. These variables may sound so formidable that you conclude people are not reliable sources of information at all. But, fortunately, item (2), done well, keeps item (1) in check.

Some people are more honest than others, there's no doubt about it. But people with a tendency to play fast and loose with the truth are far more apt to do so when they realize that their audience is not paying attention.

So when you are dealing with people, be sure you understand what's being said, re-state what you feel to be the thrust of the subject, and win agreement on the facts as you understand them from the person in question.

Make sure everyone understands that you will hold people accountable for following through on their words with concrete action. Set the right example by doing so yourself. Call people on it when they fail to follow through, and call yourself on it when you do.

When people consistently fail to back up their words with action, it's time to remove them from your life - for your own good, the good of your company, and to minimize the need to bear bad tidings.

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