PEMBROKE, Mass. — The other day, I stopped at a drop store to see a sign on the door which read, “Closed due to illness.” I called the owner of the dry cleaner, who told me his drop store manager was sick and he had nobody to replace her. I asked him if someone in the plant could have taken over the store for a day or two. “No way,” he proclaimed, “we just don’t have anybody who could run the store.”
OK, so perhaps four dozen drop store customers are annoyed. They include those who come to drop off clothing, those who come to pick up their processed garments, and those who got no answer when they called. How annoyed?
I hung around for a bit. I watched a man in a suit pull in with a bag of clothing. When he read the sign, he uttered several unmentionable words. Pretending I was also a customer who’d just arrived, I said, “I guess they’ll be open tomorrow.” He looked at me and said, “Yeah, well, you won’t see me here tomorrow.
“I’m bringing these clothes to the other cleaner in town. They’re closer anyway. I’ve been telling my wife to take our stuff there, but she insisted that this cleaner does a better job. I don’t care. This is not a professional way to run a business, and I’m taking this ineptitude personally. They just lost a good customer.” Who knows how many others responded to the closing in a similar way.
This brings me to my topic: teamwork. Every drycleaning worker has a job, but the whole crew is a team—every member should be able to pitch in anywhere in the company when needed.
Put another way, a large company can afford slots for every individual, but a small company can’t afford such bureaucratic structure. A small company must, above all else, be flexible. To be flexible, the staff must be versatile. Teamwork is the way a small company moves forward.
The first challenge is creating the spirit of teamwork. When you hire someone, talk about teamwork. Explain that everyone will be required to pitch in where needed. Discuss the need to be flexible. Impress upon the newcomer that he/she could be expected to fill several roles, and that everyone should expose themselves to the multiple aspects of the company. At meetings, preach that teamwork is needed for success. Speak of the necessity of learning other roles. Ask what staffers have done to familiarize themselves with the company as a whole. Applaud any positive efforts.
Embark on a program of cross-training. For instance, all plant staffers should be able to fill in behind the counter. During a slow period, have a presser go to the front counter and observe the counter staffer. Have the counter staffer show the presser how to check in clothes and how to hand out processed clothes, just the basics.
All finishers should be able to fill in at presser stations, at least for short periods. Find time to train finishers on the presses. This is done by the pressers demonstrating their job and then letting the observer do the work (as pressers fill in the fine points). Cross-training on this function involves three steps: observe, do, refine. Observing without doing will not enable the individual to do the work. It takes feeling the machine, handling the garments, and seeing the way material folds that results in confidence. Hands-on is the way to train.
It helps to have the work procedures in writing. Write up the work procedures for each task, then let the staffer correct or add anything that might help. Put these instructions in plastic sheets and file them for future use. When a substitute has to take over, hand the individual the procedure sheet for their reference. Obviously, the more detailed the procedure the better. Make sure that the writing is legible and easy to understand. It’s a good idea to break down tasks into numbered steps.
A few people could be taught to run drop stores. This might involve extra pay, but it is necessary. For instance, during her day off, a counter person might spend a day at the drop store with the manager. There, she learns the ropes: how to open and close, handle customers, complete the paperwork, and cash out. This training can be accomplished in one day.
If the company I described earlier had followed this practice, a counter staffer would have manned the drop store and there would have been no customer heartache. The dry cleaner would not have lost one customer and perhaps more because the store was closed.
If you have pickup and delivery routes, assign some staffers to learn them. Spending a day on the road with the regular salesperson would enable a substitute to do the work, at least minimally. Train two people, and you have your truck route covered.
Involve your family. This is true teamwork, because your family is part of the company, even if they aren’t employees. Wives, children, retired relatives, even mothers-in-law can be trained to pitch in.
Non-working spouses could be trained in a variety of positions so that she/he could be the utility staffer. If someone were unable to work, he/she could fill the slot.
Once I was at a dry cleaner and a young boy was behind the counter. I asked how old he was. He said he was 15 and told me he was helping his parents out for the day, because their regular counter staffer had to miss work. He told me he had spent two days with her learning how to do everything. He was proud that he was able to help his family out. He was most polite, a pleasure to talk to, and I’m sure he impressed all the customers who came into the store. What a great way to advertise family cohesiveness.
And then there’s you, the boss. You should be able to fill in at every position in the company, except perhaps the cleaner. Plus, you’ll benefit as a manager. Spending a day at a drop store will give you insights as to how the store runs, who your customers are, and how the demographics differ from the rest of your business. Working as a finisher will show you problems with certain fabrics that you didn’t know about before.
Say your drop store manager has to go to a doctor’s appointment. You could fill in for her for the three hours that she’s gone. There would be minimum interruption for the company, and no other staffer would have to be moved around.
Calling it your teamwork initiative, create an “Order of Substitution.” Put it in writing and tack it up on the company board for all to see. The document establishes who replaces who when the need arises. The order of replacement doesn’t have to be followed exactly, but can serve as a guide. For example, it might not be convenient for the presser to take over the delivery routeperson’s job, but a counter staffer on her day off could.
Substitution is one benefit of the teamwork concept, but there are others. Helping one another is another benefit. Coming up with new ideas is another. Seeing the big picture is a third.
The teamwork approach is a great tool for developing a motivated, flexible staff. As in football, without teamwork, there can be no touchdowns. Perhaps this metaphor can become your mantra.