Thursday, February 19, 2015

Noticing Essentials

I love to read articles in LinkedIn, with special interest in learning new and interesting details.  It occurred to me this morning, however, that we sometimes need to focus on basics, and make sure we cover the essentials of a plan before we move on to details.

Early in my career, I was a manager for a movie theater chain.  Our little chain was acquired by a huge international corporation, which then set out on an ambitious expansion plan.  Accordingly, the company built a new flagship theater, spending millions of dollars on a location which, over the next decade, lost millions of dollars.  Managers had tried to warn the head office that the location chosen was not suited to an upscale location, but we were ignored.  No demographic studies were done to confirm assumptions regarding market share or growth potential.  The new location was beautiful and impressive, but was also built in a declining neighborhood where crime was becoming a problem and away from most of the people who would be interested in a new movie theater.  The new location also failed to offer any of the amenities that Houstonians wanted in their movie experience.  The location started with limited customer interest and declined from there.

The same chain opened another location, which I managed, also a flagship project.  This one was much more successful, since it was near upscale shopping and close to Westheimer, one of Houston’s busiest roads.  We were profitable from day one, with large crowds and lots of support even in the slow months.  But the chain made mistakes again, starting with a corporate decision to replace senior managers with younger, cheaper managers.  This led to mistakes by inexperienced managers who did not know how to prepare for crisis or plan beyond the immediate future.  Simple projection of concession stock to avoid running out or losing stock to spoilage was not done, because the old managers were replaced before they could train the new managers in even these simple practices, which damaged customer satisfaction and chased away patrons. 

And then there was the foundation problem.  To save money, the chain had refused to use a Houston architect, choosing instead to use the same guys who designed their Canada locations.  Unfortunately, the ground in Houston is very different from the ground in, say, Toronto, and weight load distribution and weathering were not properly considered.  This led to immediate problems with basement flooding, and eventually resulted in the building failure as the foundation cracked along the east wall … all the way from the front to the back.   The foundation problem was first denied, then ignored, then forced the building to be condemned.

I can’t say how much the failure to plan for these two locations had to do with the eventual collapse of the business, but I can say that from my vantage point I observed that the company put a lot of effort into details while ignoring basic, fundamental needs and priorities.  Those years taught me about the critical importance of making sure I start with what I need, only adding extra expense and complexity where it helps my team be more effective and achieve our goals.

It’s easy to read articles like this and tell yourself you won’t make those foolish assumptions and focus on image rather than substance.  But what started me thinking about the need to watch out for glitter and gloss, was the fact that so many of the photos that show up in The Pulse, show attractive models more than real employees, and ideals more than the nitty-gritty of real-world work.  That’s why I have a photo of a pair of sensible shoes.  No one gets excited over a pair of plain work shoes, but it’s very important to make sure you have a good solid grip on things.  It may not wow anyone that you first pay attention to stability and good sense, but it may well prevent you having to explain a fall from wearing something silly.  In the same way, no one is likely to hand out awards for testing assumptions and making sure you cover the essentials first and surest … but you are performing a vital service to your company by doing that work.

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