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quality over quantity, or: a list of things you will never be allowed to do at your job March 16, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Very Corporate Something, Lessons Learned, Pictures, Seen Elsewhere.
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My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked for the same company in some form or another. It was a family business specializing in beverage services. My great-grandfather used to make deliveries in New York via horse-drawn cart. My grandfather and his business partner moved the business from New York to the state where I grew up. The two of them brought their sons (my father and the partner’s two boys) into the business, and the other two guys recently bought out my dad’s third of the business at his request, so he could retire.

While I was growing up, I spent a few days a year at my dad’s office. Sometimes I helped out by answering phones or filing, and other times I was just there to visit. I always thought it was something special when I was allowed to go to work with my dad or even to stop by while my mom was running errands with me in the car. If I ever bring my own children to CorporateSpeak, I know people will be glad to see them, but I don’t think that, when my oldest is 11 or 12, I’ll be allowed to bring her to the office for a day to actually do any work. Maybe that’s the difference between small/family-owned businesses and big corporate endeavors.

Anyway, I found the following picture via Lifehacker, and it reminded me of my experiences working with my dad or even listening to the way he and his partners ran the business. These are things that would never fly in most businesses these days — corporate or otherwise — but then, that’s why I think people are so fed up with companies and customer service: no one seems to emphasize quality over quantity anymore.

Photo by Tim Ferriss

Photo by Tim Ferriss

E-mail: My father’s company came to e-mail relatively late — certainly after he retired, though he had his personal account, which he checked maybe once a month. I’m not sure how things are run these days, but I get the feeling that only the office staff would be required to check e-mail more frequently than a few times a day. Not only is it a small enough office that the receptionist can just yell back to the owner’s office, but also the beverage service business doesn’t really depend upon e-mail. Not where I grew up, anyway.

No e-mail: Even though it was a service industry, and the shop was only open (and delivering) 5.5 days a week (half-days on Saturdays), I can count the number of times my dad got a late-night call from the office without taking off my shoes. When it wasn’t his Saturday to work (the owners all took turns), I could depend on spending time with my dad without him having to worry about work calling with little emergencies.

Emergency = use phone: Still in effect. A lot of people working in the corporate environment, however, prefer to deal with emergencies using e-mail for a few reasons:

  1. Paper trail: you have proof that you attempted to solve the problem, and if you did, you can document it and use it when you have your next review.
  2. Time delay: you get extra time to figure out what’s wrong so that when your boss calls you, you can say “I fixed it” or “I took these steps”.
  3. Plausible deniability: you can always say “I didn’t get that e-mail forwarded to my phone. I don’t know what happened.” Most companies aren’t going to subpoena your e-mail records no matter how big the screw-up is.

Focus: Everyone at the shop had a specific job except the owners, and even they tended to focus on specific tasks — my dad preferred to sign checks and repair stuff, one of his partners specialized in accounts, and the third dealt with the people in an HR role. Drivers drove trucks and delivered product; receptionists took orders and filed stuff; dispatchers dispatched; repair specialists repaired things. There was little cross-training because they had an efficient setup and didn’t feel the need to fuss with it.

Log: A service/repair/delivery business is very different in their methods of logging work, so I can’t really comment on that.

Minimize Chat: Useless chat is a feature of the current corporate environment; it’s not a day ending in -y if someone hasn’t wasted a quarter-hour gossiping with you at your cubicle. Plus, there’s a lot of rehashing — just because I sent my boss an e-mail explaining how I completed a task, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to rehash it with me later in the day. At my dad’s company, there was relatively little unnecessary chat, mostly because the bulk of the employees were out delivering product and repairing equipment.

Maximize Single-Tasking: A recent issue of Reader’s Digest* said that, when you’re working hard on a task, it takes about 15 minutes to get back into the groove after someone distracts you. That speaks to the previous item, but maximizing single-tasking means that you’re not distracting yourself thinking about another project you’re in the middle of. Claiming you’re an expert multi-tasker makes you look more valuable to potential employers, but switching too frequently from task to task makes the work as a whole suffer. Again, not a problem where my dad worked, for reasons already explained.

Out by 5:30pm (no excuses): My dad was almost always home by 6pm. I’m sure most of his employees got home at the same time every day — that time being “on time”. But these days, there’s no such thing as the end of the day. If you don’t work the unpaid overtime, you get a black mark on your record — or, in some businesses, you get fired. If you make a habit of leaving on time, management wonders if you’re doing all you can to help the company make money. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked during the day; unless you’re an hourly employee**, your official hours are merely a suggestion.

Every single item in that picture is something that you’ll unfortunately never be allowed to do at your job. Not anymore. Not in this economy. I mourn the passing of good business practices in favor of forcing people to do more with less in less time, but that’s the way it is.

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* I can’t give you the issue number off the top of my head; my wife read me the article during the week of February 23, if that helps.

** Hourly employees must leave exactly on time or else they incur overtime, which brings the hammer down on themselves, their managers, their managers’ managers, and so on. If you’re hourly and you stay late (and claim it on your time-card), that’s a sign that you either can’t get your job done on time and need to be disciplined or you’re trying to bilk the company out of a few extra bucks. Therefore, if you can get an hourly schedule, it might be worth it just to guarantee you can leave on time or sue the company for making you work unpaid overtime.

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