CWB February 2004


Fatal Mistakes

When managing a business, it's okay to put some things on the back burner. But not these. The first in a series.

By Anthony Noel


In the 10 years that I have been writing this column, I have talked or exchanged letters with hundreds of owners and managers of small- to medium-sized woodworking operations. I have pretty much heard it all, from "My business is failing and I don't know why," to "We are making great money, everything's terrific!" - and everything in between.

Over that time, I have noticed some common ailments among businesses that are having a rough go of it. I am not talking about companies suffering from similar symptoms, I mean one company having exactly the same ailment as another company, hundreds or even thousands of miles away. And it happens all the time, again and again.

This is not mere coincidence. As in the case of human sickness, there are recurring "pathologies," which cause the "diseases" that make companies sick. It has been my experience that these infirmities incubate and blossom based upon decisions and strategies practiced in five main operational areas: Costs, Capital Expendi-tures, Marketing, Overall Management Approach and Communication.

I've identified two or three common "ailments" within each of these areas. In the coming months, we'll take a close look at each of these maladies, and I will share my thoughts about what causes them and how to cure them. These are ailments I have run into not just once or twice, but over and over again.

My goal is to enable you to diagnose these diseases yourself and to give you real-world, workable "therapies" for curing them - before they can kill your company. Of course, finding the will and initiative to enact the cures is up to you.

We will start with Communication. Within this operational area lurks the potential for the development of three dangerous conditions: Deafness, Muteness and Terminal Friendliness.

Deafness: As you have probably guessed, I am not talking about deafness caused by failure to wear hearing protection on the shop floor. I am talking about selective (or general) deafness resulting from not listening.

This malady can afflict people at every level of a business, and the results are devastating. Beyond the obvious result of nobody doing their job as expected (because they aren't paying attention to what they are supposed to be doing), deafness destroys any chance of building the true team atmosphere that is so crucial in any successful manufacturing operation.

When people don't listen, they retreat into a private world of self-concern. They are not interested in the question, "How are we [the organization] doing?" In fact, they are not interested in much of anything. If they were, they would be listening so they could learn more about it.

Deafness is often caused by management. (You will hear this a lot in this series. Get used to it.) Whether they want to accept it or not, owners and managers set examples for what is and is not acceptable or expected behavior by their employees. Few things extinguish an employee's enthusiasm more quickly than bringing an idea, suggestion or complaint to a manager and having it ignored (in other words, not listened to).

To be sure, not every employee's thought is worthy of action, and there is nothing wrong with telling an employee who brings you such an idea the reasons why you can't or won't act on it. But at least then he will know you are listening and will come away feeling his input is not falling on deaf ears.

On the other hand, when ideas are ignored without so much as an acknowledgment, the opposite message is sent: That input is not welcome. To make matters worse, this encourages employees to ignore advice from coworkers and managers. Very soon you have an environment where the only thing employees are listening for are the lunch- and quitting-time buzzers.

I have talked to a lot of owners and managers who absolutely hate the notion that they are responsible for teaching their workers how to be productive, engaged, accountable members of the workplace "society."

"Aren't we all grownups here?" they ask rhetorically."Why should I have to teach somebody how to listen, or the importance of caring about his work, or how his contribution affects the overall success of the company? Shouldn't he just know that?" In a perfect world, yes. But guess what: Like it or not, it's not perfect. So what do you do about it?

You listen, that's what. From day one, you pay extremely close attention to what each of your employees is and is not capable of. You talk to them about your expectations and theirs. You TEACH them to listen, to care, to succeed. The most successful owners and managers I know have not merely accepted this duty, they have embraced it. Believe it or not, it doesn't mean micromanaging everything. We will talk more about what it does mean when we discuss Terminal Friendliness.

For now, just know that the average 20-something employee, in terms of both workplace experience and lifestyle priorities, is not even close to "mature." They are not sure what they want to do for lunch, let alone for the rest of their lives.

If you want a ready-made, mature workforce, fine! Go out and hire a bunch of journeyman woodworkers, all of them over 35. Just be prepared to triple (or quadruple) your payroll, to have a shop full of know-it-alls, and to have a really tough time finding anybody who wants to do any sanding whatsoever.

Get the idea? There is no panacea. There is no wand you can wave to make managing one group of people any easier than some other group. But there are things you can do to make the road to success less circuitous. Listening - sharply, attentively, completely - is without doubt the number one resource in every successful manager's toolbox.

Next month: Muteness.



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