I’ve been lucky enough to work in a lot of different places in my travels across America. One of my favorite places to work is the Midwest. That’s because growing up a New Yorker, I appreciate straight-talking people. You know, the people who say what they mean and do what they say. And I’m pleased to say that has been my experience pretty much with every one of the business owners I have had the privilege to work with.

Another thing I appreciate about Midwesterners in general is they tend to be straight shooters who do it without the New York attitude and sarcasm that I grew up immersed in.

But there is something that does amuse me when working in the Midwest (or anywhere, really), and that’s when it comes to our work together and putting my operating manuals and staffing systems to work at their companies.

The conversation typically goes like this: The owner tells me, “Al, I don’t know if I can get buy-in here for the operating manuals.”

And the New Yorker in me goes off in an unfiltered way, “Really?” Yes, I say it with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

I continue with: “I have these same manuals at my own New York City union shop. And you don’t think you can get your staff here in Iowa to buy in? Really?”


Story time

That’s when I take a deep breath, calm down and share the story of exactly how I got my team to willingly comply with the manuals at my own shop.

It was a time at my company before we had manuals, and one of my many jobs was the installation manager, which meant I was overseeing five install crews every day. One of our very best installers had been flipping pizzas when he first came onboard as an apprentice, and then attended our “Apprentice to Installer” training classes. He was really good, and rose quickly through the ranks.

One day, as I was handing out the daily install assignments, I say to him, “Hey, I can’t be there at the normal 10 a.m. time to go over the job and explain what I want done for this new heating system and the associated heating that goes with it. But, I can get there around 2 p.m. Is that going to work?”…

He did a quick scan of the paperwork that I had given him and says, “Not a problem — I have you covered.”

At 2 p.m., I arrived at the jobsite, and as I’m walking around the customer’s home and their basement, there was steam pouring out of my ears. You know, kind of like the thing you’d see in a cartoon. I was hot and bothered. I pulled the installer outside to his truck and I say, “This is nothing like what I wanted!”

And that’s when he replies, “Well your brother showed up and said, ‘Do it this way.’”

It was an awful moment! However, it turned out to be great in the long run, and here’s why: Up until that moment, we had never defined in writing what it was to do our work in a specific way, so it was open to interpretation.

The installer and I talked, and he admitted he felt I laid awake at night trying to figure out how to ruin his day. I admitted to him that I had felt that he, the installer, had laid awake at night trying to figure out how to ruin my day.

And now, the unsuspecting customer was getting their day ruined by being caught in the crossfire. Everything changed after this.


The solution

After this happened, we finally got busy creating a detailed procedure for exactly what the checklist approach needed to be on how we did our installation work. We created detailed procedures for how to commission — also known as start-up — the right way whatever we installed.

We took pictures of what we were installing and submitted them to the install coordinator to make sure they fell within the design parameters. It was sort of like a feedback loop.

We met weekly to discuss what install jobs had gone right and why, so we could replicate that process; which install jobs went wrong and why, so we could make adjustments; and the install jobs coming up the next week, and what we needed to discuss so we can be prepared.

We created incentives for the installers for bringing jobs in on time and on budget with no callbacks for 30 days. We created exit checklists that the installers had to fill out, which led to less callbacks, and more happy customers who willingly gave us pictures and testimonials.

However, the best thing was there was buy-in from the employees, and here’s why. The installer involved in this incident had coined the phrase that spread like wildfire to all my other union employees: “Do what’s in the book and you’re off the hook.”

What that really meant was if they followed the written procedure and the job fell within the set parameters, if neither my brother nor I didn’t like it, well that was our problem. We could always edit the manuals together to make adjustments for the future with the team’s help to keep making them better. But for today, they were, indeed, off the hook.

It was the best example of a win for the customer, a win for the staff, a win for the company and for us, the owners.