Just In Time -- The Chance To Fail

What are you doing to continuously improve your staff -- and yourself?

A number of years ago, when I was young enough in my career that I still thought it was possible to know it all, I met somebody who probably did know as much about magazines as anybody else. Dick Green was what we in the publishing business refer to as an "editor's editor," not so much because of his writing or copyediting skills but because of his people skills and his ability to get a lot more out of people than you would think possible.

Those of you who followed baseball in the 1970s no doubt remember Earl Weaver, the legendary manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Dick reminded me a lot of Earl, not just because they both could seem like the word "crusty" was invented just to describe them, but because they shared the same basic philosophy. Weaver's autobiography was titled It's What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts, and that's exactly the attitude Dick took, whether he was tackling a new project or mentoring his editorial staff.

I remember one day Dick gave a particularly challenging assignment to a fresh young intern, the kind of kid with a perpetual "deer-in-the-headlights" look in his eyes. The rest of us on staff started second-guessing Dick's wisdom, wondering why in the world he'd entrusted that kind of a task to an untested rookie. Trying to be helpful, I went to Dick and asked him if he thought the new kid would be able to get the job done in time.

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He looked me straight in the eye and said, "You never really know what somebody is capable of doing till you give them a chance to fail. And guess what: Sometimes people will surprise you." Then he went back to what he was doing, end of conversation.

I realized immediately that Dick had already given me countless chances to fail -- in fact, he'd given everybody on staff numerous chances and challenges, and those times when it looked like we might indeed fail, somehow he coached us through it anyways. Again, he was a lot like Earl Weaver, or any other great coach, in that whenever our magazine had a great month, it was a team effort, and when something went wrong, Dick took the heat on himself. As you can expect, that caused us to work even harder to make sure those failures were few and far between. And as you can imagine, when I learned recently that my friend and mentor had passed away, just a week or two since I'd last talked to him, I was stunned because I thought he'd outlast all of us.

In one of those strange coincidences of timing, I received a book the other day whose title echoes the Earl Weaver book. It's called It's What We Do Together That Counts, and is written by Earl Heard, the CEO of the Business and Industry Communications (BIC) Alliance. Although I haven't yet met Earl Heard, I get the idea that he and Dick must've learned a lot of the same life lessons. Along with the book, he sent a note which offers up his definition of success:

"Early in my life I knew that if I was going to be successful, it wouldn't be because I was highly intelligent, good looking or had athletic ability. I decided that although others might out-think me, no one would out-work or out-THANK me."

Within manufacturing circles, continuous improvement refers to things like shaving production lead times, increasing inventory turns, reducing time-to-market, improving profit margins, etc., and we have plenty of performance metrics that measure how well we're doing managing the business side of our operations. Following Earl Heard's cue, I would suggest that an equally authoritative way to measure how well each of us is doing as a person might be to determine how often we've earned a "thank you" in any given day.

And just as importantly, if there's somebody who's ever made a difference in your life, don't wait for the "right time" to thank them. Do it now.

David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's new blog about supply chain management.

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