In 1967 I enlisted in the US Navy and a year later was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise where I spent the next three years of my life. I enjoyed many aspects of Navy life and may have made a career of it except I had a wife and daughter waiting for me to come back home and resume a normal life. I find I am often drawn to books that are somehow connected to the Navy which I why I first picked up It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, 10th Anniversary Edition by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, then captain of the USS Benfold, a ship he turned from one of the worst in the Navy to one of its top performing ships.
One of the first things he did when he took command of the ship was to ask each crewman, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” He found that there were many better ways to do things and whenever possible he gave the people the power to make those changes. It was a huge morale booster that not only led to higher performance but also to a higher retention rate.
Abrashoff understood something many leaders forget. The people doing the job often know more about that job than anyone else including the so-called experts. The funny thing is that these leaders knew that when they were working their way up the ladder, but once they sat down in the manager’s or owner’s chair, they suddenly begin to believe they know more than the persons doing the job.
For thirty years I was employed at a factory working various machine lines, the assembly line, receiving, and quality. I was amazed how often someone would come to a line where I was working from their air-conditioned office and begin to tell us how we could improve the way we were working. I once had a time-study expert conduct a full time study on a particular job I was doing on the assembly line while the line was shut down for repair! I told him it was impossible to do a time study on my job when I couldn’t even do the job. He insisted I walk him through what I did and he would be able to determine how long the job should take. His report wasn’t even close to the actual time it took to do that job!
This guy reminded me of a product engineer who insisted that a part they had developed would fit perfectly on a certain model of engine we were building. There was one particular configuration where the mounting holes would not match up properly. Time and again we complained about the problem, and every time he would demonstrate on his computer how everything matched up fine. It took weeks before someone forced him to come to the assembly line and actually install the part. He soon found out the part would not install on that configuration, and the part was re-designed.
When I became owner of a small business I made many mistakes which I explain in my book by that name, but one mistake I avoided was to believe that I knew more about what our employees did than they did. In one of our earliest meetings I told them that if I got in their way while they were trying to get work done to just kindly ask me to step aside. These were experienced, hard-working people who knew far more than I ever would about how to do their jobs. Any changes that would be made would happen only after we discussed them, not just because I thought something different would be better.
How often do you ask your team members if they can think of a better way to do their jobs? How willing will you be to give them permission to make the changes they identify? When people have real input into how they function while at work they are usually much more productive and have much better attitudes towards their work. That can quickly improve the bottom line of any business.
If you haven’t read Abrashoff’s book I would highly recommend it. It’s really an interesting read.