The good news is I finally had graduated to a tech and was no longer a lowly apprentice (a glorified helper in those days). The bad news is I was generating a lot of callbacks.
That would be bad news for any tech. But it’s really bad when you’re the boss’s kid!
To stem the callbacks, my service manager, Tommy, decided to go with me on a boiler install to see what I was doing that was causing the problems.
But first, you need to know a little bit about Tommy. He was the very best mechanic I had ever known. Tommy could fix any heating system and, if necessary, get it running through the night with little more than chewing gum and a paper clip if he had to. He was our version of MacGyver. And Tommy also could do the most magnificent work you’ve ever seen given the time and the materials to do the job right.
I’ve known mechanics who can patch it up and be really quick at knocking out calls, and I’ve known other mechanics who can do work that is beautiful. But I’ve never seen anyone like Tommy who had mastered both skills.
He was also one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. That’s saying a lot because I’ve been lucky enough to learn from many of the very best teachers in our industry. What made Tommy so great at teaching was he first made you feel like you were worthless and an idiot, then built you back up by teaching you everything you needed to know. All of us who learned from him never forgot what he told us because we didn’t want to be humiliated twice!
Beyond that, Tommy was extraordinarily organized and able to teach using visual concepts that made the learning stick. Plus, Tommy knew everything and he wasn’t afraid to share his knowledge as others might. He wasn’t like the cook who leaves out the secret ingredient of his best dish.
The bad news was that Tommy was very demanding of the guys who reported to him. Being the boss’s kid, you’d think I would be treated better. No! He was twice as tough on me than anyone else out there. And he did this with the full backing from my dad. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But now I can see the wisdom of my dad’s decision to never undermine Tommy’s authority, especially when it came to his kids in the business.
OK, are you getting a clearer picture of the man yet?
Fateful DaySo that fateful day came when Tommy hopped into my truck and we went off to install the one and only boiler job we’d do together. Tommy said, “Just do as I say and this will be a whole lot easier on both of us.”
The first thing Tommy said to me when we arrived at the job was, “Bring in all the crates of fittings and all the material boxes but before you do that, put down red rosin paper from the door we’ll be entering all the way to the boiler room. And one more thing. Put down cardboard just outside the room where we’ll be installing the boiler. We want that to be our staging area for all the materials and fittings we’ll need.”
I made mistake No. 1 of the day by looking at my watch. Tommy caught a glimpse and chomped on his ever-present cigar and roared, “Do what I say now and quit looking at your watch!”
Well, I had never bothered to cover the floors like that, use cardboard to protect the area where I put down the materials or bothered to bring in all those heavy fitting boxes. That’s because I was in too much of a hurry and I thought all this time spent doing this would slow me down.
Truth was I used to spend most of my day running back and forth to my truck getting what I needed. And at the end of the job, I was flipping empty boxes all around trying to find stuff that was lost in the pile of the debris I was creating.
Yes, I was clueless.
But Tommy was in charge, so I did as I was told although I did it grudgingly. Then he said, “OK, I want you to tag all the supply and return pipes and all the wires before you disconnect anything. Got that?”
That’s when I made mistake No. 2, and I looked at my watch again. This time Tommy bellowed, “You look at that watch one more time and you won’t have a wrist left to wear it on. And one more thing: You can look at your watch only once more today and that’s at the end of the day when we’re back in the truck. Am I clear?”
I nodded and did exactly what I was told to do, but this time without the slightest sign of protest.
I fired up the boiler and walked out of the boiler room to begin packing up because I was ready to leave. Tommy looked over at me and said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
I meekly replied, “I thought we were finished, so I was packing up and getting ready to leave. What else is there to do?”
Tommy muttered, “No wonder you generate the callbacks you do. You mean to tell me you don’t test the system and explain the operation to the customer?”
He held up his hand and continued, “Don’t answer that. I already know you don’t. OK, today and from here on out you’re never to leave a job without testing what you’ve done and educating the customer. Are we clear?”
I was thinking it was a waste of time. I would have looked at my watch, but I was already getting smarter.
So I did exactly what I was told, and then I was permitted to clean up. The shock of it all to me was how fast and easy it was to know what I had used during the day doing the job this way, how easy it was to cleanup afterwards and to know that all that time on the front end made life at the end of the job a breeze. And there was little chance there’d be a callback for something I had neglected to do.
When I got back to the truck, Tommy said, “Go ahead and look at your watch.”
And when I did, to my amazement, doing it Tommy’s way took less time and we had done a better job than I had ever done on my own before.
Do you think putting the time and effort in on the front end instead of on the back end applies to only the work you do? Is there anything else going on at your business that you shortcut the time up front?
When you don’t think you have the time to train people on the front end, you’re going to have a much harder time finding all the time you’ll need to clean up all their mistakes on the back end.
Make a promise to yourself to start small and create at least a one-day training and orientation process for the next employee you hire. And then you tell me if Tommy’s lesson about “Putting the time in on the front end instead of the back end” doesn’t save you time, preserve your sanity and reduce the fires you have to put out each and every day.
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