Thoughts on Efficiency

Perhaps I’m lazy, but I like to find the most efficient way to do a thing.

Did you ever listen to Car Talk ? I used to listen every Saturday morning as a teenager. There was one caller that had a question about a car problem and a possible solution. It turned out, that the proposed solution would indeed work but, as Ray said, “It wouldn’t be the cowboy way.” I still laugh about this from time to time, especially when I see someone doing something inefficiently.

Perhaps I’m lazy, but I like to find the most efficient way to do a thing. This, I believe, is a learned trait. I learned it in a roundabout way while working for hire as a second grader. We would do anything from landscaping and construction clean up, to farm work where I learned how to drive. Pop, or his business partner Marion, would give specific instructions about a task-often the grunt work in a larger process-and expect us-Zach and I- to do exactly what they told us, precisely how we were shown, while rarely-if ever-explaining the whole system.

We didn’t complain, after all they hired us to do the simple work, not to understand the whole process. “You get paid from the neck down.” Marion would remind us if we ever “had an idea”. This labor without understanding is the basest type of working. All you need to do is show up and breath. I’m not throwing off on this kind of work, it’s necessary. I also think it is important to learn how to follow instructions. Maybe you know a coworker that has never really learned how to meet the most basic of requirements.

After working at this level for a while you begin to ask yourself questions. Why am I doing this? The first answer is money. I’m working for money. That is usually a good enough answer to keep most people working, until you ask yourself, Why am I doing this this way? This is when you start thinking about efficiency. You’ll start wanting to understand how the whole system works instead of just your task.

From here a stream of questions will begin to flow rapidly, How does this all work? Can it work better? What is important? Are we wasting time doing things that do not matter? How can we streamline this?

I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m pretty sure this is another level of working, understanding the whole process. And making that process or system more efficient is another level I’m sure.

“There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way.”

Everyone I ever met who served in the US Navy

If there has been one thing I’ve learned as an adult in the work force it has been, not everyone wants things to be more efficient and there is always resistance to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve often heard this response when someone would rather stick with an inefficient process than take the time to learn a more efficient way. Let me be clear, efficiency is not the same as cutting corners.

I remember my Dad dealing with a situation like this when he managed a machine shop. He met resistance while introducing a more efficient system, particularly from one man who had been working there for quite a while. My Dad had a unique way with people.

“What is the best vehicle ever made?” Dad asked the belligerent man.

Without hesitation the man said ” The 1956 Chevrolet pickup truck.

“What did you drive to work this morning?” Dad asked the man.

“A 96′ Chevrolet pickup truck.”

“Why didn’t you drive the 1956 Chevy truck?”

“Well the 1956 gets real bad gas mileage, and the ’96 can has a much larger towing capacity…” He rattled on like car people do until he realized that Dad was making a point about the new process.

A big part of my current job is helping people use the internet. Occasionally someone will walk into the office and smart off to me about not having a computer.

“I ain’t got one and ain’t ever planning to have one. Don’t need one.” It’s a point of pride to them. Well you needed one today or you wouldn’t be here, I think to myself.

“Yeah, I’m sure there were a lot of people that kept on riding horses after the automobile was invented.” This has become my stock response to the nastiest of these customers.

There is a slight part of me that admires someone who can live free of the internet, but on the other hand, we are twenty years into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, these people are being left behind. I think the key to not being left behind is to remain a student for life.

I understand that some things are unchangeable and cannot be improved upon. In general though, I’m for making a task easier, simpler, and more efficient.

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Icees

Getting an Icee at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver, AL was one of the only treats that we ever got to experience while working for Pop in the hay business. Partly because Watson’s was the only store in Vandiver, which was where the hay business headquarters were located. There were three flavors of Icee: Red, Blue, and Coke. The proper names were actually, Tropical Punch, Blue Raspberry, and Pepsi, but since I had my first Icee before I had my first reading lesson, I never let these small details bother me.

You have to be careful drinking an Icee while you’re working outside in the blistering Alabama summer, there is a tendency to drink the sugary slush too fast, which results in a painful medical condition called “Brain Freeze.” My little cousins, Kyle & Chase, had a strong affection for Icees. Kyle would put his lips to the straw and would only turn loose when he got brain freeze, at which point he would grimace and grab his head until the episode passed and then he would repeat the process until the cup was gone.

Kyle and Chase were working with us before they were old enough to go to kindergarten when we’d stop and get an Icee after unloading a trailer full of hay in the barn. I remember one particular exchange my Dad had with these little fellows after we were driving back to the field after stopping to get an Icee.

“What flavor did you get Kyle?” Dad asked.

“Trocipal punch Uncle Perry.” Kyle replied, struggling over the polysyllabic adjective.

“Yeah, Red! My fravorite!” Piped up Chase.

Red was the best. As a child, it was extremely disappointing to have your hopes up for an Icee, only to find out that the only flavor available was Coke. Of course, you’d get it anyway, and suck it down until you got brain freeze. As you get older you realize that Coke is actually the better flavor.

I passed by the Icee bear this week and he brought back a flood of memories as he waved his cup full of frozen delight in my face. I almost got one, but they were out of Red.

Pop’s Hat

I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop was always getting on to us for not wearing hats while we were working outside. And he was right too. It’s not too hard to catch a sun stroke working in the blistering Alabama heat, and more than once I remember getting a splitting headache because I had forgotten my hat. You get all dizzy and your vision kind of goes black, it’s just a whole lot easier to wear a hat. Pop also believed that you should wear long sleeves to keep yourself cooler in the summer. He was probably right about that, but I never tried that. I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop didn’t just tell us all that, he lived it. Pop never forgot his hat. There are probably people that have never seen him without a hat. He usually wears those mesh back trucker style hats in the summer, and full on cotton baseball cap in the winter. He wears them perched on top of his head. I have often wondered how they staid on.

Pop used to get Zach and me up at the crack of dawn to deliver hay. We’d get up early to beat the heat in the barn. Sometimes we’d make several trips from the barn to the client. sometimes it was a horse farm, sometimes a hardware shop, sometimes just a customer who needed to feed their cows, and even construction company. Now construction companies are not particular about the quality of the hay they get, since they only need it to spread for erosion control after they’ve planted grass. The horse customers are extremely particular, but that’s a different story. You could bale up a briar patch and sell it the construction companies and they wouldn’t care. Pop called that kind of hay mulch hay. Which I’m not sure is the proper term, but it get the point across.

One morning Pop had us load up a trailer and truck full of mulch hay to take to a construction company on the outskirts of Birmingham. Pop drove, Zach road by the window and I sat in the middle. That’s what I got for being the smallest. It didn’t matter how early we got to this place, it seemed like it was always scalding hot in the metal trailer where we had to unload that scratchy mulch hay. Once we got finished and piled in the truck, hot and sweaty, Pop rolled the window down for us. He always preferred the breeze over the air conditioner, and he wouldn’t let you run the AC with the window down. Which makes sense, but I’d rather have run that air conditioner. Pop had just merged onto highway 280 when a big 18 wheeler flew past us and Pop’s precariously perched hat almost went with it. He took both hands off of the wheel and grabbed his hat and socked it back down on his head. It’s a wonder that we didn’t have a big wreck, make the news and turn Vulcan’s light red all in a flash. After the smoke had cleared, Pop looked over at Zach and me, smiled, turned on the AC, and rolled up the window.