The Unmeasurables

Business managers are taught that goals and benchmarks must be measurable to be achievable, but not everything that affects the success of your company can be analyzed. There is a bias toward the quantifiable in scientific research, even though qualitative, or anecdotal, observations also are valid. After decades of work as an employee, business owner and independent contractor, I’ve learned hard lessons about how important the “unmeasurable” factors can be and how much talent is wasted when managers and owners forget what it was like to be an employee with more to offer than the leaders recognized or appreciated.

If you are truly committed to building the best company possible, you will be willing to read this series of columns with an open mind and recognize the gap in your system—not everything important is measurable. There is no line item on your balance sheet for “people” or “customers” and no formula for measuring the quality of your relationship with either group. Your equipment and building function optimally when you invest in and care for them—so do the people who keep you in business.

Unfortunately, company owners and managers often take better care of their nonhuman assets than their employees and customers. Let’s consider the attitudes of your employees. Anyone who reports to a supervisor operates from fear to some extent—fear of making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, delivering bad news, and being downsized or fired. Few of your employees will attempt to tell you the truth because the consequences can be painful. Nevertheless, they have definite opinions about how the company is managed, the owner’s lifestyle and the different ways in which worker bees and supervisors are rewarded.

That’s the problem with the traditional pyramid structure of most electrical contracting companies. The top levels are small, and most people carry the load from the bottom where the view is fairly bleak. If you call your employees “associates” or “team players” and you still operate a pyramid-shaped organization, they are not being fooled. The people holding up the structure don’t earn the most appreciation or eat fancy lunches, and they have more ideas than they are allowed to contribute.

Yes, I wrote “allowed” to contribute. If you really want to have your employees’ input, prepare to hear the truth. Employees rarely share the facts because most of them have suffered negative consequences when they dared to express opinions that differed from the norms that drove their company culture. However, creativity is painful; you need people who point out the flaws in your groupthink, so bring everyone into the planning process and accept their feedback before you make the next big shift in your company strategy.

When I asked my shop foreman how a costly mistake had happened on a high-risk job, he told me he had known the design wouldn’t work the moment he started looking at the drawings. Angry and frustrated, I demanded to know why he hadn’t said anything. He replied simply, “You never asked.” Since then, installers and shop fabricators were asked to look at plans for specialty projects before the estimates were completed. We saved a lot of heartache and made a lot more money from that day forward.

A few years later, after closing my company, I naively thought that my experience and ideas would be valuable to my subsequent employers. Although colleagues were supportive and grateful that someone had said what we were all thinking, I quickly realized that the leadership of each organization was not really interested in feedback, unless it aligned with the decisions that had already been made. Most meetings were intended to brief the team, not use our talents to create the best strategies for the company.

Managers have no miraculous ability to see the perfect path. It is the people on the front lines who know what needs tweaking and how they can be of greater service for the success of their team. Employees stop making contributions when they realize they can’t make a difference because you aren’t really asking for their opinions—just their agreement.

Most employers are tapping only a small portion of the knowledge and experience of their work force. Not everything appears on a resume or is noted during a prehire interview, and every team member had a life before coming to work for you. Ask them what they can offer, regardless of whether it fits into the scope of their current job descriptions. Then look for ways to help them make a difference. I guarantee their attitudes will improve, and so will your bottom line. In the next two columns, I’ll continue to explore the benefits of this process.

About the Author

Denise Norberg-Johnson

Financial Columnist
Denise Norberg-Johnson is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at .

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