The people closest to the work know the most about it

Those of us in leadership roles often think that we have the answers to so many of the problems our organizations face. Yet, in my experience, most solutions come from those actually doing the work. In fact, I have found that those individuals responsible for producing the good or service are most likely to identify the problem in the first place! In other words, you are best positioned to overcome challenges – and even achieve productivity gains – by listening carefully to your team.

In my many years with Tractor Supply Company, we made a concerted effort to listen to feedback from salespeople and managers about our products and services. And this was not a one-time effort; the conversations were ongoing and regarded as an integral part of the way we operated. The process of continuous communication yielded innumerable new ideas related to every aspect of the business. When the stores told us they needed a certain product, it was because they were listening to their customers. I can say with great confidence that the overwhelming majority of new ideas about products came from the people in the stores.

Here is just one example to illustrate my point:  many years ago, our assortment of tack for the equine customer was limited and did not include any leather product.  But our store in Hutchinson, Kansas, inspired by customer interest, brought in an assortment of leather tack which sold very well. Thanks to communication up the ladder, we had leather tack in all stores in short order. This soon became a big sales win for the entire company. It was simply a matter of listening to the customer through our in-store team members.

This on-the-ground wisdom extends to systems and processes as well, where enhancements implemented in stores and distribution centers are almost always initiated by the people actually doing the work. Let’s imagine that a staff member finds a way to cut fifteen minutes out a daily process in the company operation. Let’s see: a quarter of an hour per day, times 360 days a year, times 2000 stores. That’s 180,000 more man-hours available to sell merchandise and support store operations.

My friends in manufacturing tell myriad stories of a similar theme. One I can recall: an off-shore competitor offered to make a component part for half the current production cost. The domestic company wondered if they could meet the importers’ cost; so, they went straight to their engineers and sought their feedback. Together, management and team members decided this challenge could be met. A few months later, that part was manufactured domestically at half its previous cost. Though this specific idea did not originate with those on the ground,  management engaged with those closest to the work to create a plan for maximum efficiency and allowed the expertise of these trusted team members to lead the way.

This leads me to a crucial final point: there are often new and important ideas, systems, and procedures that originate outside the workforce.  But the implementation process will almost always work best with review and input from the people who will actually do the work; so, make sure all interested parties are included throughout implementation. There is no effort here to diminish the importance of high-level decision making – just a message that you will make the best decisions with input from all concerned.

No matter what business you are in, there is no downside to spending time on the front line with those really doing the work. There is no limit to what you can learn in the process; and, as an added benefit, I guarantee this quality time will go a long way toward earning the respect of the workforce.

published Nashville Business Journal

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  1. Great article Joe. The old adage you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with applies, listen to your team!

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