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Getting More From Less — Leverage Points

Paul Eldrenkamp

You're running really low on gas, but you're late for an appointment. You reluctantly drive right past the gas station and on to your destination. Just over a mile later your truck stalls, stutters, and stops. A 15-minute walk back to the gas station, 15 minutes back to your truck, and you're 30 minutes late and utterly stressed. If you had just stopped at the gas station the first time, you'd only be 5 minutes behind. If you had filled up the night before on your way home, you'd be right on time and totally relaxed.

This is an example of a leverage point — a brief moment of decision that had far greater impact than the time it took to make the decision.

The longer I try to make my way in this industry, the more I think about these moments, when I have the ability to make a great impact with a limited effort: Taking ten minutes today to do something that will save five hours next week, or identifying the one chronic gap in my systems that causes 80% of my problems, or coming to grips with the one particular personal weakness that has caused me more grief over time than any other.

There are two ways of thinking about leverage. One is identifying the small actions that head off the incommensurately bigger problems, like losing five minutes now to fill up the gas tank rather than losing 30 minutes later when I run out of gas.

The other is more broad-based: Establishing policies and ground rules that keep you out of troublesome situations to begin with. Maybe you were running late the morning you ran out of gas because it was a 7:30 meeting and you're always scrambling to get to 7:30 meetings because the kids are always too slow getting dressed in the morning. Explain to clients: I have meetings between 8 AM and 4 PM. Yes, it takes some time and effort and negotiation to get clients on board with this policy. But there's good payback: You can get the kids dressed and off to school and make it to your first meeting relaxed and in control. You also have time at the end of the day (having finished the last meeting by 4:00) to gas up for the next morning's first trip.

Here are some more examples:

Call them before they have to call you.
It's always amazed me how much more credibility I have if I call a client preemptively and say "I need one more week to finish that proposal" than if I wait for them to call me and say exactly the same thing. On a daily or weekly basis, go through your client contact list and think about who's going to be calling you soon if you don't call them first. Make those calls right away. The net result can be just the same — a delayed warranty repair, a later start date for a new project, a higher estimate because of some new information — but the client will be much more inclined to put up with it, simply because you were the one taking the initiative on the call, not them.

Say "no" early enough.
The earlier you say no, the easier it will be to say no. The longer you delay, the fewer graceful exits will remain. Most of us know almost right away if a job, or client, or sub is just not a good fit for us. Instead of bowing out gracefully right then and there, we hesitate for fear of hurting someone's feelings, or looking foolish, or appearing hard to work with. Develop techniques for saying no with conviction: "I'm sorry, I don't think we'd be the best choice for this job. We can't possibly be the best choice for every job we're offered. I think the most useful thing I can do for you right now is disqualify myself and give you the web address of our local NARI chapter, and maybe someone on that list can help you."

Attack one problem at a time.
My esteemed colleague Kerry Bramon of Columbia, Missouri not too long ago got me thinking harder about something called Pareto analysis — in popular terms, identifying the one action that takes 20% of the effort but gets 80% of the result. For instance, if you have production problems all up and down the line, maybe focus just on schedule for a few months: Setting realistic schedules; good crew, sub, and client buy-in to that schedule; and a concerted group effort to get just one job done on time, to prove to everyone that you can do it. Use the lessons learned on that one job to get the next two or three done on time. And watch the other unexpected benefits you reap: Probably greater job profitability because of tighter production; higher client satisfaction because you got in and out when you said you would; happier and thus more loyal, responsive subs who didn't get strung along day to day waiting for you to be ready for them. Finally, higher crew morale because of reduced "project lag" syndrome — hanging out on a job that's dragged on too long is a …drag.

Work with someone's nature rather than fight it.
With regard to staff development, I think the real leverage point is to understand that people don't really change. They can adapt up to a point, they can acquire some better habits, they can respond (short-term) to positive or negative reinforcements, but fundamentally, by the time they're legally old enough to work for you, they're probably pretty set in their ways. So you can choose either to tailor the job description to the person (rather than the person to the job description), or to be prepared to go through a lot of people before you find the right one for the position. About a year ago I had to fire a very fine carpenter simply because I kept trying to promote him (with his complicity) to a position he was never going to be the right choice for, and he ended up — surprise! — not being able to handle it. If I had created a different position to play to his strengths and work around his weaknesses, I'd have a really good carpenter on staff now. Recently, I was faced with a similar situation: a lead carpenter who, once you got right down to it, didn't like people all that much. I could tell him to take a hike, and lose a highly skilled individual; I could keep wasting time trying to make him a traditional lead carpenter with all the client and subcontractor contact that implies; or I could create a position of "Exterior Specialist" that allows him to do what he enjoys and keeps him away from the situations he will just never handle all that well.

Admit to yourself what you just can't or won't do.
The single most effective leverage point is probably acknowledging those tasks that you, as owner, will just never be able or willing to do. If you yourself are accountable for some particular task crucial to the successful operation of your company, and after 5 or 10 or 20 years of owning the business you still seem always to postpone or ignore or mishandle that task, it's time to face reality and admit you'll never do it effectively. As I said above, we humans just don't change that easily. No options here: Delegate the task.

So think about these strategies for leveraging your time and energy, and implement as many of them (and others you come up with yourself) as you can: Remember that long walk back to the gas station.



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