Sunday, June 19, 2005

Blind Spots: Patterns of Self-Sabotage

It is so easy to see patterns of self-sabotage in others, yet nothing is harder to identify in oneself. I have been moderately lucky in being able to recognize my weak points as a self employed bohemian, and I try to foster self awareness.

My #1 tool for solving sticky problems is to go run for forty or fifty minutes. The first couple miles, I can barely focus on running because I am tweaking over the problem. Then I hit a good rhythm and forget about it. Then with about a mile to go, the solution pops into my head. I kid you not! Others can achieve this affect with needlepoint, yoga, hard drugs or lots of sex. Sitting in your back yard and discussing the problem with your cat may work also.

When I was green, I made excuses to clients when I ran into technical, logistical or time problems. Fortunately it dawned on me in time that the buck really did stop with me. No one was interested in hearing convoluted reasons why the job didn’t work out. They wanted me to solve problems, not blather on about them. So I came up with a two-part solution to such sticky matters. First, get it done, and get it done right. Second, when stuff still goes wrong, don’t mince words. Be blunt about it. Get to the point. If you need client input on solving a problem, the sooner they know about it, the sooner it can be addressed.
Realize, when you deliver bad news, be prepared for any reaction, including anger, and recriminations. Think ahead a few moves just like you would in a game of chess. I guess it all comes down to being frank, honest and quality oriented. If you are being honest and doing your best, you can handle any situation from a position of strength.

Other typical blind spots are production bottlenecks and systemic inefficiencies. Like I said a couple paragraphs back, I can see others blind spots easier than my own. Here’s a few I see in some of my screen printing colleagues.

Pricing too low. It’s a vicious circle. You are not getting the work, so you price super low to bring jobs in. You are basically screwing yourself and working for low or no pay. So you price lower to bring in even more work that you will not earn a profit from. What a nightmare! I see it all too often. This pattern of behavior is usually accompanied by a “victim” mentality. You know, the old “whoa is me, poor me” routine.

Working too fast. Many screen printers have worked in shops that pay piece work rates. So, the faster you work, the more you make. Needless to say, quality is not at a premium in such a shop. Once this mentality is ingrained in a printer, it is almost (if not literally) impossible to change. This may be less true than in years past, as the technical and quality demands of the industry have changed, but I’ve had to deal with it on a regular basis and it’s a true quality killer. The results of this speed first mentality are misprinted shirts and shitty quality prints.

Not paying attention to details. Whether you are writing a work order or reading it, goddamn pay attention! This can go hand in hand with the speed fixation. Why be in a hurry to do a job wrong?

Understaffing. What is the point of having a state of the art shop if there is no one but you to run it? There are only so many hours in the day and so much work one body can do. Also, if your rent and equipment payments can’t be met by the amount of work you can produce, that is a clue that you need more warm bodies cranking jobs out. A bit of simple accounting can come to the rescue here. Figure out how much your shop can produce if it’s running at about 80 – 85% capacity (leave a margin for the inevitable trouble shooting). How many people will it take to produce that much work? How much can you charge for it? What can you afford to pay, leaving room for fixed costs and production costs, and your salary?

Trusting employees. If you train people well, pay them well, and give them responsibility, they will perform miracles for you. It all comes down to treating employees with respect.
If you don’t trust them, pay them lousy and don’t listen to them, they will hate you and do shitty work.
I maintain that there is nothing to lose in trying it my way, as you can always fire people who don’t measure up and give someone else a chance to shine. Chances are, they will.

These are just a few blind spots I’ve observed in my screen printing brethren. Now, they can read this and come kick my ass for writing about them! The point is, examine your mode of operation closely (and get feedback from others). Stay aware and look for efficiencies. Remember that the cheapest solution is rarely the best. Ask yourself, what does it take to get it done right? How much must you then charge to make a profit?