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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Faulty Equipment

“Y’all boys are rough on equipment.” That’s what Mr. LaDuke said after my cousin Kent had broken three ax handles, a weed-eater and wrecked a moped. I guess we were pretty rough on equipment, that’s why half the every day tools and gear that we used in the hay field were broken to some degree. Pop was forever adjusting the square baler, which was always shearing pins, whatever that means. Most of the trailer jacks were bent. The old Ford truck had a tricky clutch that I never could get to cooperate. For every piece of faulty equipment, there would be a new oral operating manual that must be followed in order to get that particular item into proper working condition. These instructions were far from intuitive, and in some cases nothing close to the original manual, but I guess it was cheaper than replacement.

This rings true for every other place that I’ve worked over the past twenty years. The copier at one job requires you to jiggle drawer A before you can print. The computer at another place requires a restart before you can use the audio. The espresso machine at another place requires additional warm up time. There are always locks that require an odd key angle and a prayer. And vehicles that require you rev the engine to keep from overheating at a stoplight. I’m sure you’re thinking of a piece of equipment at work that you’d like to hit with a sledge hammer.

Probably the most dangerous faulty equipment that I have worked with were vehicles that required you to start them by bypassing the solenoid. I’m not dead certain what that even means, or why we had to do it, but basically, instead of cranking the engine with a key, like a normal person, you lay a screwdriver across the positive battery terminal and the negative terminal into the solenoid. This bypasses the solenoid relay switch and starts the car. Oh, and the key needs to be in the on positing in your ignition. 70% of the time it works 100% of the time.

This process is pretty simple on a lawnmower. Sometimes you see sparks fly off, but that’s part of the fun. If you have long arms and longer screwdriver, you don’t even have to get out of the seat of a zero turn to start it with this method. It’s a little bit trickier when you’re doing it on a truck. At one particular job, there was an old Ford Bronco that required this staring method. We were in downtown Winchester, VA getting a new lawn mower tire installed when my boss, Shawn, first showed me how to jump start the solenoid to start the truck.

I was so proud of myself when it fired right up and I got ready to back out into the street, with my lawn mowers on the trailer behind me. As soon as I put the Bronco in reverse, the engine stalled. I had to pop the hood, crawl out of the vehicle, and jump the solenoid with a pair of pliers. It fired right up this time. In reverse. The Bronco began backing out into the busy street. Panicking, I flung the pliers down and raced to catch the runaway vehicle. Fortunately I had left the door open and only had to run about twenty feet before I jumped into the moving vehicle. Once I got into the drivers seat and got the truck stopped I started breathing again. I was going to play it cool and just keep driving, but as I put the vehicle into gear I realized that the hood was still popped. I’m sure the people in the tire shop got a good laugh seeing me scramble so. I’d have laughed too. A couple of years later that Bronco burnt to the ground in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Equipment tends to wear out with normal use. But sometimes it gets help from clumsy employees, abuse and misuse. I can hear Mother’s everywhere saying, “This is why we can’t have nothing nice!”