PEMBROKE, Mass. — A while ago, I consulted a prospective buyer of a drycleaning establishment. He was cocky and confident, the former manager of a large software company. In fact, he was so sure of his abilities that he hardly listened to my advice, despite the money he paid for my services. He wound up buying the dry cleaner.
It was an old, established operation, but five years later it went bankrupt. I never exactly found out why, but I wondered if it was something he told me: As memory serves, he said, “I’m a manager of people. That’s my primary talent. I don’t have to know what they do as long as I can motivate them. In other words, I’m not a nitty-gritty operator; I’m a guy with the big-picture outlook. I let my people do the work, so I can concentrate on wider horizons. That’s why I’ll grow this business. The last thing I want to do is waste my time.” I disagreed with him then, and I disagree with him now.
It is vitally important that the boss can do everyone’s job. Not that he/she will have to perform the work when the worker is absent. Rather, knowing each person’s job is important to manage the operation well. Here, knowledge is power.
It is mandatory to grasp what is required of each staffer so the person can be motivated and made to do his/her best. It is necessary to understand everyone’s job and how it fits in with the overall performance of the operation. It is important to grasp what each individual in the chain has to do so that the next person can do that work without impediment. It is critical to understand the overlap of work to untangle bottlenecks. It is valuable to be able to make changes with full knowledge of the implications of the change.
My advice is, if you are entering the industry fresh, learn all jobs to the point where you understand what the worker does. That doesn’t mean that you have to be an industry veteran. That doesn’t mean you attend drycleaning school and work at each position for a month. That doesn’t even mean that you spend several months learning everyone’s job. Rather, spend some time each day with staffers.
Say the magic words, “Teach me your job.” The operator will not be offended. He will not be concerned that you will take over his position, eliminating the need for his employment. Rather, he will be pleased that you are taking an interest in what he does.
The basics of teaching a process apply: The operator tells you how to do it, you actually do it, then the operator tells you what you did right and what you did wrong. Then you do it again. This getting your hands on the equipment is very important. Otherwise, it’s cursory learning, and that’s insufficient.
For instance, the inspector walks you through her work, talking about what she is looking for and how she spots the problems and what procedure she uses to make sure the problems are fixed to her satisfaction. Then she watches you inspect garments and adds pointers as you go from one outfit to another.
For another example, the presser discusses his presser machine, how to work it, how to lay down the different garments, what to look for to see that the outfit is properly placed, what motions he makes, how his moves change with different types of clothing, what could go wrong, and what to look for to see that the garment is done properly. Then you do the work for a few hours or so. The presser offers suggestions, until you become pretty comfortable with the work. He suggests when to use steam and how suzies help mold outfits. That should be sufficient time for you to understand the basics.
A few examples will illustrate the need to be able to perform everyone’s job:
- The cleaner can’t remove a stain from a delicate fabric, and he is afraid to proceed further. He approaches you with his concern. Because you have bothered to learn about stain removal, you have some ideas. Together, you knock around the problem and come up with a new approach. It works, and the stain is removed. The cleaner is a hero, and you made this possible. Plus, the cleaner knows he can come to you for advice in the future.
- You’re bringing in a lot of commercial work that is creating bottlenecks with the regular cleaning processing. Because you understand each job, you can reconfigure each position in the assembly line to churn out the commercial volume without delay to the regular workload. You do this by setting up a second processing line and positioning bins besides machines for storage. Also, you reconfigure staffing needs to spread out over longer shifts. You can solve the problem because you understand everyone’s job and how each position interacts with the overall process. This is called balancing the production process.
- You think your driver/delivery person is not doing his job. His speediness leaves something to be desired. He says that he is moving as fast as he can, but the neighborhoods are too far apart. But you have accompanied drivers and observed the delivery process. You know that a driver who is not hurrying will take a much longer time than one who is hurrying. So, you break down the route into four segments and assign time completions for each and monitor the driver to get the work done in a timely manner. Furthermore, you assign him extra tasks because you know that a busy worker will push harder to complete his chores. Because you understand route delivery, you can force the driver to increase his effort.
- One daytime counter person says her replacement is not completing her shift assignment. When you confront the night counter person, she insists that the daytime counter person isn’t doing her job. Because you understand the counter procedures, and have a good sense of how each person completes his shift without burdening the replacement, you can investigate the claims of each person and adjudicate a decision. Your decision will be based strictly on the facts, and no one can accuse you of playing favorites.
- Due to a location move, you’re setting up a new plant. Because you understand the needs of every staffer, just what he/she requires to do his job well, you create efficient workstations. Because you understand the need for communication between the departments, you create an effective flow for communication. Because you understand where bottlenecks could arise, you can design a floor plan that will minimize the chance of problems occurring.
There’s another reason that you should learn all jobs. On a motivational level, nobody likes a boss who sits in his “ivory tower” office and monitors business from computer reports and manager meetings. Employees want a boss who can relate to them and is not afraid to roll up his/her sleeves and get involved with the work. Become a man of the people and find out how your staffers do their work.
The former dry cleaner said that the last thing he wanted was to waste his time. Possibly, if he had taken the time to learn jobs—to “waste time”—he would be in business today.