Sixteen tons and whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt -- Tennessee Ernie Ford

When my son Max was 1 year old, I took him to the pediatrician for the recommended exam and inoculations. The doctor gave Max a thorough going-over and said,

"Your son looks happy and healthy. You, on the other hand, look terrible."

I burst into tears.

I was working a more than full-time job as a restaurant manager. I was helping Hot Rod and Yox in the plumbing company, running parts and answering the phone when I was at home. And, I was a mom.

I was proud of all the time I spent with Max. I got up with him at 6 a.m. We hung out all day together, until I took him to the sitter's about 3 in the afternoon. Hot Rod would pick him up by 5 or 6.

I would head into work at the restaurant by 4 p.m. And work until 2 or 3 a.m. Back up with Max at 6 a.m., day after day. I thought I was pulling it off: The Super Woman lifestyle.

Until Max's doctor busted me.

Something had to change. I came up with a darn good idea! I scheduled a meeting with the owners of the restaurant and my two co-managers.

I proposed that we promote a promising waiter named Jeff to junior manager. He and I would share my job. I would work part time. And Jeff would manage three days a week, and wait tables as often as he liked on the other days.

This arrangement worked amazingly well! A few of the benefits:

We had depth. With our previous schedule, whenever a manager went on vacation, the other two managers would cover the shifts. This expanded the 60-hour weeks into 90-hour weeks. As a result, the covering managers inevitably got sick. By the time the vacationer returned, he had to jump into a 90-hour week to cover for the ailing manager. On and on it went. Until we all hated vacations. Until Jeff came. Then, vacation time meant Jeff worked full time. Easy.

We had flexibility: With the junior manager, there was an extra body --two, in fact. If the other managers needed a day off, Jeff or I could fill in, without resentment or risk of burnout. Also, we started to schedule special cleaning days and community involvement events. It was heaven.

It didn't cost much. The only extra cost was an insurance package for our junior manager. We split my salary. How cost effective is that?

We operated with this management arrangement for over a year. It was the golden age of the restaurant. In every way that could be measured, our statistics were up.

Most interesting is what happened after I left. Jeff was promoted to full manager. However, no junior manager was selected to replace him. It was back to business as before. I stopped in to visit a couple of months later and noticed dark eye circles on each of the managers. Sigh.

Why? All of us loved the junior manager arrangement. Projects got done. The restaurant was spotless. The numbers were looking good. Why would they go back to the days of burnout and stress-induced illnesses?

People don't change easily. If no one is there to push the change through, the system will revert to its most comfortable level -- even if that level isn't very effective.

There is a good ol' boy hazing culture in most organizations. If you want to hang out with the good ol' boys, you've got to prove yourself by burning the candle at both ends. Why? Because that's what the good ol' boys did.

Nowhere is this "stinking thinking" more pervasive than in the world of medicine. Why is it that resident doctors are required to work days in a row with little or no sleep? Research proves that sleep deprivation is more debilitating to responsiveness and decision making than drinking alcohol. (Beware the doctor with the red-rimmed eyes the next time you are in the hospital!)

The good ol' boy culture requires that doctors work these ridiculous schedules. Why? From what I can determine, it's because the doctors who came before them worked that way.

Down with 8 to 5.

The plumbing industry isn't much better when it comes to work-til-you-drop work day standards. It's 24-7 out there, baby. More than ever, customers expect you to work around their schedules. With two-income families, the most convenient service times are after 5 and on the weekends.

Today there is a round-the-clock demand for services. However, you can't stretch your 8 to 5 people into 24-7 people.

Not long ago, I visited a plumbing shop and was dazzled by the cleanliness, organization and highly disciplined culture. During my tour, the owner described roll call, the line-up-and-report-in first meeting of the day. It was held at 6 a.m.

"6 a.m.? Wow. Up and at 'em," I responded. "It's 4:30 p.m. now. When do they go home?"

"When the calls are done," the owner replied proudly.

"You seem pretty busy today. How late will some of these guys work."

"Oh, I expect Zach and Donny won't be finished until 11."

Then I asked the obvious question, "How many of your techs are divorced?" Out of 10 techs, nine of them were divorced.

The next question was about turnover. The numbers were not good.

Defensively, the owner responded, "The people who work for me aren't afraid of a good day's work."

Hmmmm. How do you measure a good day's work? Is it the number of hours spent on the clock? Or is it something altogether different?

Hours Vs. Production

As a PHC contractor, you are in the business of selling the skilled labor hour. No bones about it. However, what kind of production are you getting for the hours spent?

Regarding your techs, I suggest you keep track of billable hours and your labor costs as a percentage of sales to get a handle on whether or not you are operating efficiently (and charging enough for your services!) Look for production, not just hours on the clock.

Next, consider ways to creatively approach the workweek. Not everyone can work the 8 to 5 or 7 to 4 schedule that is still the standard in our industry. Get creative, and you could find more potential employees -- a big plus in this tight labor market. Be known as a family-friendly company and see what that does for your recruiting efforts.

I know a progressive service company that is testing a new approach to technician scheduling. They are offering 36-hour workweeks, three 12-hour shifts per week. This way, they can use the same truck for two techs. This extends their available service hours, without overtime. And, for some two-income families with kids, this schedule can be a real blessing.

Here are a few other suggestions:

  • Confer with your techs. If they are consistently working 10-hour days, why not make it official? And give them an extra day off per week.

  • Hospitals and cab companies have figured out how to staff round the clock. Could you rotate your techs through 11 to 7 shifts or 3 to 11 shifts for the on call schedule?

  • With your "inside" staff, you can really challenge the 8 to5 mindset. Create written job descriptions and performance measures, and then start thinking outside the box. I described my successful job-sharing project earlier in this article. You get more than one full-time effort when you employ two job-sharing employees.

    Ask your team how they would like to split up responsibilities and tasks. You can find lots of win-win solutions that will keep your good employees bound to you like glue. Listen to them. Think in terms of tasks and production. Then staff accordingly.

  • Try working from home. With modems, the Internet, faxes, cell phones you can be anywhere and get work done.

  • The office is quiet on weekends and after the 8 to 5 day has wrapped up. A quiet office is conducive to productive work! Is there anyone at your office who would do well to work the "off" hours?

  • Do you have a project that needs to be done? New software implementation? A training program? Inventory control? Hire a subcontractor, or a temp, and get the job done and let the person loose.

    Look beyond the time clock. What is getting done? Are people growing, creating and accomplishing goals with a worthy purpose? At the end of the day, is the world a better place?

That is the measure of a good day's work.