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April 16, 2010
Harvesting What You Plant

It was several years ago when I first came to realize that I had a problem. Each day I would go to the office with every intention of getting certain items completed and crossed off my list only to leave each night frustrated that I had actually not completed any of the work I had planned to work on.
It wasn’t that I spent the day goofing off or that I was lazy. In fact, I was tired and exhausted from all the work I did during the day. I just came to the harsh realization that I was completing everyone else’s work but not my own.
I certainly cannot blame anyone else. I created the problem myself.
Each morning and afternoon, there would be a stream of employees and coworkers into my office with problems.  
A shipment wasn’t arriving to us on time...the bank needed quarterly financials... we were on hold with a particular vendor because they never got our payment... the fire inspectors were here to check the fire extinguishers...several boxes of our latest shipment were damaged when they arrived...Mary wants to take her vacation the same time I want to take my vacation...our e-mail isn’t working right...problem after problem...day after day...
People would come to my office like Dorothy and her three friends went to see the great Wizard of Oz. The foursome of course had big problems: No home, no brain, no heart, and no courage. The "great and powerful Oz" would fix all of their problems and they would soon be happy. Of course we come to realize that the Wizard had no special powers but rather he relied on some ingenuity and some quick thinking to create solutions to the problems placed in front of him. Everyone lived happily ever after...except perhaps the Wizard who never seemed to have any time to get any of his own work done...but his problem was of his own making...he was in fact the "Great and Powerful Oz"...it made sense that he solve other people’s problems...
I knew that I needed to escape this "time" death-spiral. I conferred with several of my friends, advisors and coaches and then the answer finally hit me squarely between the eyes...just stop solving other people’s problem and find a way to allow them to solve their OWN problems.  What a concept!
The solution sounded simple enough.
The people I work with are very intelligent, creative, honest and hard working. Like most people, the answers to the hard problems already resided somewhere between their ears. We just needed a way to unlock their potential and allow them to become problem solvers instead of me.
I found that the keys of the solution lay in three main areas:
  • Safety and Security
  • Training and Processes
  • Gaining Experience

If I could find a way to provide these keys, then we could create an entire company of solution providers rather than relying on just me.

Safety and Security
Although I’ve parted way with several employees over the years, I like to say that I’ve never fired anyone for making a bad business decision (although many have made bad personal decisions). 
People need to feel safe for making decisions that they truly believe are correct. If people exhibit good judgment and make sound decisions but unfortunately have a bad outcome, then they should not be penalized. One sure way for a person not make any bad decisions is to not make any decisions at all by passing the responsibility to someone else.

In order to stimulate others to make decisions is to communicate that bad decisions (outcomes) will be tolerated but no decisions will not.   People need to feel safe and secure in their position in order to go out on a limb.  The need to know that they won’t be "sacrificed" in order to save face should the outcome be less than optimal. 

Training and Processes
When a person becomes a new driver (in California at least), they are required to take an instructional training class to learn the primary rules of the road and how to operate a motor vehicle. By ensuring that all drivers understand the basic laws and conventions, roads can be used safely by everyone. Decisions are relatively easy to make in most instances.  Because of this training, we all know what to do when we approach a four-way stop. Very little is left to interpretation.   
The same principles apply to the workplace.  How can anyone expect a person to make informed decisions without first giving them proper training?  Whether it’s the proper way to answer a phone, operating a forklift, completing an expense report, creating a work order, or entering sales orders, there needs to be a standardized set of procedures and rules governing the operations of the company. 
The person who really understood and capitalized on this idea was Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds. He understood that by using defined processes and training, business decisions could be standardized and streamlined. This approach allows people to create successful and profitable businesses without possessing any extraordinary aptitude and/or skills but rather a small amount of capital and hard work.

Decisions are easier to make when there are standards and processes in place to help guide the decision maker.
Gaining Experience
I still vividly recall an experience that happened to me while working at my first "real job" out of college. The company I worked for was Square D, a large manufacturer of electrical equipment.
At a relatively young age and with little experience, I was put in charge of managing a new building project taking place in Saudi Arabia. My role was to specify the UPS and battery backup system for a new hospital being built. 

I reviewed the specs and project needs and had our purchasing department order the proper equipment and send the items to the Middle East.  About three months later, I received a phone call from the on-site manager who told me that the equipment I sent to them was all wrong.   I had mis-read the specifications and sent them single-phase transformers instead of three-phase transformers.
I thought that my career with the company was surely over. My mistake had cost the company over $50K (which was about two-times my annual salary at the time). I remember the pit in my stomach when I reported the problem to my manager. Needless to say he wasn’t happy about the situation but surprised me when I asked him if I should clean out my desk. He responded, "hell...we just spent $50K educating you...why would I want to fire you now?"
Needless to say...from that point forward, I read and re-read the specifications completely and thoroughly before I acted.
The best way to learn to make good decisions is to make some bad decisions along the way. This is how we learn.
I try to remember this fact, especially when parenting my teenage kids. One day, they will leave our home to go and live on their own.  If their mom and I continue make all their decisions for them (because we know what is better for them than they do), then how will they ever learn to make their own good decisions in the future? Sure, we’d like to give them the advantage of our vast experiences but they need good and bad experiences of their own. Yes, it is hard to sit back and allow them to fail but I believe that they will be much better prepared for their future armed with the experiences that they will gain from their successes AND their failures.
A timeless postulate states that "you harvest what you plant"...you are responsible for creating the reality surrounding you...be careful of what you plant...
Being a good manager or parent is about teaching, coaching and allowing others to learn. People will excel if you give them the opportunity...allow them to grow.
Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse where we try to help you plant the seeds of success today for a rich harvest tomorrow.

Jim Kalb
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