Jun 222012
 

 

I was a newly-minted MBA moving from an entry-level position to a job selling catalysts in the oil industry. The sales manager, Jim Trecek, arranged for me to spend a week under the tutelage of a renowned salesman in Toronto. His name was Pat McLaughlin.
I arrived at the Toronto airport before Pat, and waited anxiously in my MBA attire—suit and wingtips—hoping to give an appropriate first impression. He spotted me from halfway across the terminal; my rookie patina shown brightly. As he approached, he ignored the carefully planned wardrobe, looked me in the eye and said “I told that Jim Trecek not to send any of you young shits up here to follow me around with a clipboard!” A fleeting glint in his eye shown even more brightly than my rookie façade. This was Pat’s way of welcoming me, and encouraging me not to take what he said, or anything that happened, too seriously. He made it clear I had three responsibilities: open the doors, buy him cigars and pay for lunch. In return, every time he made the slightest misstep, I pretended to pull out a clipboard and make note.
Through uncountable guffaws, and hours of side-splitting laughter, I fell in love with this kind-hearted, amazing man. Over the next five years I had the good fortune of working with Pat in a number of capacities. For two years, I was a sales manager in the Toronto office and got to see him almost everyday—we regularly broke bread together.
The company we worked for had an annual award—the Golden Oval—given only to the best sales people. Any professional was fortunate to win it once. Pat McLaughlin won it numerous times. He loved his customers and only wanted to be of service. He lived for any moment he could solve a problem and make a customer’s life easier. His customers loved to see him because they knew he would never take advantage of them; he could be trusted implicitly. It also helped that Pat had a seemingly infinite repertoire of stories and jokes that kept everyone in his life laughing.
On a recent vacation to visit Judi’s family in Hawai’i, I spent time with a number of ancient texts. In most, our spiritual journey and professional life were never separate or distinct. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” simply had no meaning in the language of that world. Life’s labors were never intended to be an inconvenience that allowed us to live a different life in the evening, on weekends and vacations, or following retirement. Life’s labors were fundamental in the discovery who we are and how we relate to the world. And only after we make that discovery can life’s tasks be completed most harmoniously with life itself.
I doubt Pat McLaughlin read many ancient spiritual texts. I suspect he never thought of himself as enlightened. What I know is that he had a way of creating harmony in the world by the kind and generous way he shared himself with every human he encountered. He certainly did in my life. In the end, cancer is the cause we assign to Pat’s passing, but I wonder if, in retirement, Pat lost his way of creating harmony with life, and so life simply left him. 30 years later, I still miss him greatly.

 

Mar 032010
 

Note: This article was originally published in the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

My Father spent his career in quality management, so I was raised with a deep understanding of what quality means, how you get it, how you create systems to deliver it and what to do when those systems fail. Like the humans that create them, all systems are imperfect and will fail to meet customer expectations at some point! Anytime a customer is disappointed—with a product or service—you have a quality problem.

25 years ago, I was a newly-minted sales manager for a chemical company. A customer who used our dye to manufacture industrial paper towels discovered that one of their customers was upset because something was leaching from the towels and turning water brown. They wanted to cancel all future orders because they feared some unknown, potentially hazardous chemical was threatening the health of anyone who might grab a towel.

We did two things. First, we worked with our customer to adjust the amount of dye they added to their towels. Then we called our chemical plant to get toxicity data for the dye—it was completely harmless. Those two actions allowed our customer to report that the cause of the problem was found and corrected, and to document the dye was harmless, which no other towel suppliers could do. The quality “problem” lead to both an improved production process and a competitive advantage.

On the other hand, I once consulted with the president of a jewelry manufacturing company. He loved sales, but hated manufacturing. The only time he entered the plant was when there was a problem and it was time to “kick some butt.” The moment the plant door flew open and he appeared, the manufacturing people literally ran for cover. With everyone pointing fingers to avoid being the one whose derriere was to be roasted, few problems were ever really solved, little competitive advantage was ever gained and costs remained exorbitantly high

There are two ways to deal with a system failure. You can target some individual, label them an inept, inconsiderate slob who doesn’t care about customers, and punish them. Alternatively, you can realize that problems are almost always systemic—the weakness is in the system—and beyond the control of any one individual.

If you follow the first course, you will drive fear into the organization, fail to solve the systemic problem, ensure it reoccurs and train people hide or point fingers the next time the system fails.

A more enlightened approach is to gather the troops, explain the problem, enroll everyone in finding the root cause, fix the system and celebrate success.

Most managers would be amazed how much employees want to help solve problems… and already know how. When I was that wet-behind-the-ears manager, Denis, a customer service rep, would call every so often with a customer problem and ask how to solve it. Thinking it was my job to fix the problem, I would wring my hands, talk to a few people and call Denis back with a solution. One day he called with a problem and I was stressed and frustrated. I said, “I don’t know Denis, what do you think?” He knew how to solve the problem…he always did. He was simply afraid to step on the toes of some young, unknown manager. I came to love Denis for his dedication, creativity and customer commitment.

No system is flawless…no system will ever be flawless. When systems fail, you can exclaim, “Oh God…a quality problem!” Alternatively, you can view it as a gift to help you identify and reinforce a weak link in the chain of events that produces your products and services. When seen this way, next time a customer has a complaint, you just might instead—with the use of one extra “o”—exclaim “Oh Good! A quality problem.”