Sharing Success

Beware of the “Hidden Fix”

During every Fresh Pack season, I learn a great deal by watching how individual employees approach their jobs in our cannery. I have always been amazed by their effort and ingenuity.

I have noticed that certain long time employees seem to have a sixth sense for anticipating mechanical problems with the equipment they operate. As a result, they seem to be able to prevent these problems or fix them as soon as they happen. Either way, the operation runs nice and smooth when they are manning their post.

Having sharp employees is always a good thing. However, there is a potential downside to this type of “preventative” behavior by employees when it creates what I call a “hidden fix.”

A “hidden fix” happens when a well meaning employee takes it upon themselves to repeatedly solve a symptom of an underlying problem instead of bringing the problem to your attention.

Three things happen as a result.

1) Fixing the symptom keeps the underlying problem hidden.

2) Since hidden problems aren’t fixed, the symptoms keep happening.

3) Hidden problems grow worse (and more expensive to fix) over time.

Here is a cannery example to explain this: Let’s say that a wire powering an electric pump starts to vibrate loose, causing the pump’s emergency breaker to trip about once an hour. If a well meaning employee quickly resets the breaker switch themselves to restart the pump instead of waiting for maintenance to come investigate, they temporarily solve the symptom (stopped pump) while hiding the root problem (loosening wire).

But because the real problem (loose wire) isn’t identified and fixed, the symptom (stopped pump) will keep repeating itself. Worse, if the loose wire eventually breaks free, it could permanently damage the motor, requiring a costly replacement and stopping an entire production line.

“Hidden fixes” can also apply to human behavior. For example, if a restaurant server politely replaces dirty glassware when a guest notices lipstick smudges, but then fails to inform the manager, he will temporarily solve the symptom (dirty glass) but hide the root problem (incomplete washing).

Without corrective feedback, sloppy performance by the employee washing dishes may worsen, disappointing even more guests over time.

In my experience, here are some steps to avoid the “hidden fix.”

1) Educate your team. Emphasize that when a business strives for excellence in everything, every employee’s contribution counts. In addition to doing their job the best they can, it is also their responsibility to be the owner’s or manager’s “eyes and ears” to report all unexpected results whenever they find them. The reason is simple. Until the person with the power to solve a problem knows there may be one, the situation cannot improve.

2) Treat all problems like symptoms. Most “problems” are actually symptoms of other problems “upstream.” And “problems” you fix will stay fixed only if you have solved their root cause. Therefore, having an employee say “we ran out of forks” is an automatic invitation to investigate what may have happened “upstream” to limit the resupply of clean forks.

3) Cross train your employees. The more people who know how to do a job, the more aware everyone becomes of “exceptions” when they occur. Cross training also increases your employee “bench strength” and makes you less vulnerable to absences. (A bonus to this approach is that employees who understand how their jobs interrelate with each other’s also tend to find more solutions to problems).

4) Manage by walking around. Employees may be your “eyes and ears,” but there is no substitute for spending time watching how they are doing their jobs. Not only will you occasionally spot a “hidden fix” in progress, observing your best employees can also reveal new “best practices” they have developed which should be shared with the rest of the team!

My overall point is this. Business excellence requires constant improvement, and that cannot happen if problems receive a “hidden fix.” Coaching your team to help identify areas needing improvement (and digging into their true cause) can help get you closer to your “excellence” goal.

Our sample was admittedly small. But when measured in “how much premium pizza can consumers afford with an hour’s wages,” even after recently increasing their menu prices, these successful pizzerias remain as equally affordable today as they were ten years ago!

Here is my point. In business, pricing decisions are highly personal, and as owners we often rely on “gut instinct” to help guide them. However, just like my $4 high school movie tickets, always remember that our gut feelings about “what things should cost” were most likely formed back when money was tighter, and we paid much closer attention to prices.

Assuming that you are confident in the superior quality of your offerings, feel equally confident in charging what they are worth! A few things are for certain. While cost-inflation is frustrating, the great news is that consumers still LOVE great-tasting restaurant food, and great-tasting restaurant food has remained exceptionally affordable!

On a personal note, Maureen and I wish you the best during the coming holidays and hope you enjoy special time together with your loved ones!