By Diane M. Calabrese / Published December 2023
Mistakes remind us we are not perfect. We are human. But slip-ups, blunders, and errors, which come in all shapes and sizes, also serve as lessons learned: We can do better.
Someone may get through a year without a misstep, but the probability is low. Most of us have plenty of opportunity to learn as we review and look forward.
Moreover, learning can go in more than one direction. For instance, it can lead to an innovative solution by a company to help its customers.
Take the way that hoses are treated by their owners, and let’s not single out professionals in our industry. Gardeners—this one guiltily among them—who “just this once” give a hose a tug around the corner of a raised bed where it got stuck know they are erring.
Hoses are incredibly useful and sometimes stubborn tools, or is it the users that are stubborn? There’s more than one lesson in the tug and pull.
“Professionals drag their hoses across unforgiving concrete edges, tightly wrap them around houses, and deftly retract them back to their trucks, whizzing and shredding all the way,” says Ken Hebert, vice president of marketing at BluBird Industries in Sheridan, WY. “It was within this challenging environment that our company wanted to emerge as a trailblazer.”
The trailblazing meant seizing the opportunity to learn and build, and it began with “recognizing the gap between theory and practice, between the controlled confines of our quality control department and the untamed field,” explains Hebert.
“This is why we have started a select group of pressure-washing professionals to bring their expertise and firsthand experiences to the forefront,” says Hebert. “Through this collaboration, we seek to merge laboratory testing with real-world trials, gaining a profound understanding of what truly works.”
In fact, Hebert says the overarching lesson learned about hose use can be summed up in more colloquial terms: “Professionals in this industry beat the crap out of their hoses, and we have to work harder to find the right recipe if we want to make the most durable hose in the world.”
What can we do better? That’s the first question. How do we do it better? That’s the second question. And how do we gather all relevant information to answer both questions?
Whether we take an informal or formal approach to answering the questions, it’s something every business does. The commitment that industry professionals have to best practices signals their ongoing quest to learn and do better.
Some lessons come as a bit of a surprise, but they offer no less opportunity to learn.
There are many approaches to gathering feedback (information) from customers. In a digital world, many companies have moved to quick appraisals and ratings or surveys.
Yet there’s a tried-and-true method that should never be ignored. Talking with customers in the real world can bring to the fore concerns and needs that might be difficult to identify on the best video link. Relationships can be built in the digital sphere, but person-to-person contact gives them greater strength.
“Our company has been very fortunate and blessed through the past two to three years despite COVID and economic woes, and although our main product/products are somewhat seasonal, we have had increased sales,” says Ken Yoshitake, president and CEO of J.S. O’will Inc. in Federal Way, WA.
“The one thing I can say, perhaps, is to value the relationships we have built over the course of some 20-plus years,” says Yoshitake. “That no matter how advanced or beneficial social media technology has become, and even more convenient than the traditional ways of communicating, nothing will ever replace in-person, face-to-face interaction.”
Yoshitake values all modes of communication. Still, he does not want to lose the real-world connection.
“Although at times technology is super convenient, we try to always value and keep our business relationships with customers and suppliers a personal relationship and visit each important member of our network,” says Yoshitake. “I think that is the one thing we value and try to maintain as we move forward into an ever-changing world.”
Building bonds with customers and vendors is important. Building bonds with employees is important too.
“I learned in 2023 that creating better engagement among employees starts by creating more cohesive teams,” says Kerry Siggins, CEO of StoneAge Inc. in Durango, CO. “I’ve known this for some time, but it became crystal clear in 2023.”
What set the year apart to reinforce the lesson? The complexity of the economic landscape, for one. That complexity generally involved everything from rising interest rates to employee recruitment and retention issues and, of course, supply chain snags.
Each company confronted specific challenges, but complexity is what challenges bestowed on the entire industry. The stronger the ties amongst employees—and the entire team—the more easily a company could capture and use the resilience required of it.
“With so much volatility and uncertainty, there is a need for aligned teams who share a commitment to each other and the company,” says Siggins. “Team building is one of the most important duties of a leader, and creating team cohesion can be a beneficial cycle.”
Company leaders become the model for others. Employees look to them for guidance, not necessarily in prescriptive ways but because they seek a good model to follow.
“People tend to rise (or fall) to the level of the people around them,” says Siggins. “Stronger, healthier teams help create more engagement and encourage better performance from everyone on the team, while lower-performing teams can spread disengagement and drag down high-performers.”
Learning from Mistakes
“Lessons Learned” (December 2019) complements this article. (See https://www.cleanertimes.com/magazine/cleaner-times-articles-2/lessons-learned/.) A key point: Learn from the mistakes of others.
If a professional colleague recounts a mistake, then listen and extract the lesson. Membership in professional organizations makes it easier to compare and evaluate experiences.
Many business organizations have mentoring programs. The mentors usually have decades of experience—good and bad. Mentors can help mentees foresee pitfalls and avoid them.
In an ideal world, mentors who work with organizations that assist start-up businesses can help would-be owners/entrepreneurs avoid the biggest mistake they can make. That is starting a business when they do not have the expertise, industriousness, or financial resources to do so.
Once a business is a reality, the expertise, hard work, and capital are still needed. A business plan keeps a company on track.
For example, in an uncertain economy many novice owners are tempted to try something new. They are vulnerable to vendors who promise to increase web traffic or suggest that management systems can cut down on the number of employees. The vendors may be correct, or they may be wrong.
By carefully evaluating each decision in the context of a business plan—here’s where we are, and this is where we want to be in six months—an owner can make a better decision about structural changes. Owners of established businesses know that when they talk with one another they are building a collegial industry; and they are helping each other bypass errors they have made.
Trial-and-error learning is the longest root of all learning. But just as there’s no need to reinvent the wheel or ignite the first fire, there is no reason not to build on the experience of others. And the mistakes of others are part of that experience.
Businesses are not organic entities, but they do grow in ways analogous to trees (and other organisms). Thinking of a business as a pseudo-organic thing enables an owner to veer away from the biggest errors.
It’s ridiculous to plant an apple tree sapling and make plans to harvest apples in autumn. There will be no apples. One error to avoid: dreaming about the impossible and neglecting the day to day (e.g., watering and cultivating the sapling).
The apple sapling may be damaged by drought, insects, or other forces of nature. What happens then? Can it recover? Over the years the sapling may grow into a productive tree with abundant apples near-term and for years to come. But the owner is weary of tending the tree. What then? Will someone buy it? Is it valuable enough to sell?
Therein are the biggest errors: getting out ahead of the business structure (number of employees, facilities, customers) with plans, failing to have insurance or capital to respond to the unexpected, and neglecting to think about what happens to a business when the owner wants to move on and do something else.
The lessons learned in 2023 may each have a unique element. But they are permutations of lessons—positive and negative—that business owners have been learning since the first exchange of goods and/or services was made.
It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality, but it is possible to heed valuable advice of colleagues and the lessons that derived from individual experience. We are human. We learn from our mistakes. And we continue as we commit to do better and better.