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What Looks Good on Paper

By Doug Cartland

I’m not kidding…

A contractor needed to tear down a house to start a new construction a few years ago in Georgia. He showed up, looked the job over, revved up his machinery and proceeded to tear down the wrong house. Really! The wrong house!

Someone was living there (thankfully not at home at the time). If you would’ve stood at the demolished home and looked over your left shoulder, you would’ve seen the house that should have been torn down about 100 yards away.

I can hear Maxwell Smart now: “I missed it by thaaat much.”

The foreman of the crew gave this explanation: “This house (the one he destroyed) lined up perfectly with the GPS coordinates we were given.”

There are so many questions I would ask that foreman if given the chance (Did you check the address? Did you peek in the window and see that it was being lived in? Did you make a phone call to be sure?) But suffice it to say, it’s amazing how right some things can look on paper.

Speaking of GPS…

I had a friend over one afternoon and we were going to drive separate vehicles to a picnic. I had been to the site of the picnic a few times, but he had a GPS. So I thought I would follow him. I thought maybe the GPS would give us a better way to get there than what I knew by having actually driven it.

The GPS did take us the shortest trip in miles driven. However, whatshould have been a one hour journey if we had gone the way I normally go, took a full hour and a half because the GPS didn’t consider lights, elements of traffic, construction, etc. The GPS has coordinates and statistics and diagrams and sometimes a nice voice, but there is a difference between the GPS and me…the GPS has never actually driven the streets.

A GPS can tell me theoretically the best way to travel around my home, for example, but it doesn’t know shortcuts that I know; it can’t inform anyone which streets my village is slow to plow in the winter and offer an alternative route; it doesn’t have in its coordinates the neighbor who flags me down constantly to talk, and whom I avoid at all costs. I know these potential obstacles because I have, day in and day out, experienced the drive.

Leaders, too, sometimes have coordinates and statistics and diagrams and even a nice voice, but often not the daily practical experience or the day-to-day know-how that adds incredibly vital meat to the decision-making bone.

A couple of years ago, I was consulting a large, very well-known manufacturing company. One of the senior execs is an engineer. The senior team decided that they wanted to get 30 percent more out of the manufacturing floor. The engineer went to work to see if there was a way to do it.

He spent months drawing and drafting and studying, adding and subtracting, measuring and calculating. Finally, he had his plan in place. He decided that, yes, it could be done and he knew exactly how to do it. The company then spent two weeks implementing his plan. They moved machinery, changed processes and reorganized most everything.

In all of his research, however, the senior exec never asked for input from the people who actually do the work.

As he began to make his changes, the employees began giving him feedback, explaining why many aspects of his plan would not work. He ignored their concerns; he considered them nay-saying bellyachers.

Finally his plan was in place. It didn’t work. Three months later they put everything back the way it had originally been. The cost to the company was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Too many times, leaders make decisions based on what should be correct. They make decisions by what looks right, by theoretical truths and by what makes sense on paper. If I’m making a decision on how to rework a manufacturing line, wouldn’t my purpose be greatly served by considering the ideas and feedback from those actually on the line?

If I’m going to make a decision on a new filing system, shouldn’t I get practical advice from the ones who actually do the filing?

If I’m going to change the functions of my computer software, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get input from the people who are actually going to be using it?

If I’m going to propose a new way of selling, wouldn’t it behoove me to get feedback from my salespeople?

I’ve hired and fired people for many years. When I’ve hired people, I never felt that I was just hiring them to do a job for me; I was also hiring them to bring me ideas about how they could do their jobs better.

There are some people who feel that they are not paid to think. In my organizations and the organizations I’ve consulted, they have been dead wrong. I haven’t cared if they push a mop or drive the most expensive machinery; everyone on every level is paid to think. And it has paid off with a treasure trove of ideas for me and for the companies I have taught to do the same. Even if nine out of 10 ideas an employee comes up with are not feasible or effective, that one gem makes the other nine misses worth every head scratch.

These people do the work. Trust them to think for you, too.

If you do, you win twice: you validate your employees and make them feel like their opinions matter, thus increasing their motivation and desire to work hard for you; you often get better ideas that save you time, money and stress.

Did you know that the number one reason labor forces reach out to unions is not salary or benefits? It’s because they feel like management doesn’t listen to them, that they have no input into their jobs, the company’s direction or their futures. Thus, they reach out to a third party to force that input.

You cannot do everything your employees want you to do, and you cannot accept every one of their ideas, but you must give them a genuine platform. They want and need this.

You prove your genuineness by giving them opportunities to communicate with you, by actively listening to them, by giving them logical and well-thought-out reasons why you cannot use a particular idea they have, by implementing the good ideas you can use, and by giving them credit for those ideas.

If the demolitionist had checked and confirmed with the actual people who were directly involved with the house he was to tear down, he likely would have flattened the right one.

And if I would have followed my experience rather than the GPS, I would have had 30 minutes more at the picnic.

You want to get your game on in 2013? Engage your employees…you’ll find gold.

Doug Cartland is a leadership expert who has been consulting businesses and advising CEOs for 15 years. Find him at dougcartland.com.