know where to make the mark

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At the turn of the twentieth century, a little know mathematician and electrical pioneer named Charles Proteus Steinmetz was called out of retirement. Henry Ford and General Electric had a major problem. One of their generators had stopped working and none of his experts could fix it.

Steinmetz, a former GE employee, came to Ford’s aid and went straight to work. After two days and two nights of tedious calculations (all by hand, mind you) Steinmetz mounted a ladder with a piece of chalk and drew an ‘X’ on the side of the tank. Before he left, he instructed the operating engineers to remove coil from where he had made his mark. They did so and the machine once again began working to full capacity.

Thrilled with its operation, Ford asked Steinmetz to send him a bill for his services. Not knowing exactly what to charge, Steinmetz sent a fee of $10,000 (roughly $290,000 today).

Enraged by the figure, Ford demanded that Steinmetz send him an itemized invoice.

Steinmetz responded:

Making chalk mark on generator               $1

Knowing where to make the mark              $9,999

Ford paid.

So much of the success or failure of a business relies, not only in the physical exertions required in maintaining it, but in knowing where exactly to contribute those exertions in the first place. The engineers’ task of removing windings of coil from a several thousand pound generator was by no means an easy one. But in retrospect, the real difference maker was knowing where to exert that labor to begin with.

As companies seek to generate a culture where productivity and unity abound, many often err by putting efforts into things rather than people. Cool furniture, gyms, foosball tables and snack bars are all wonderful commodities, but they are not usually the instruments that mold and foster a culture.

Understanding the core motivations of an employee is key to knowing how to best meet their needs and how to develop a culture where they can excel.

The village defines the boy just as much as the boy defines the village.

There is no magical formula. Generating the right culture will vary from company to company.

Years ago, a young foreman found himself in charge of a very difficult team of construction workers. Their assignment was to build a series of nine-foot brick walls between sections of land in a developing community. They were behind schedule. The men showed no interest in their work. They were constantly late. And they took an excessive number of breaks.

They did, however, have two major interests: sports and gambling. Money was frequently exchanged between men after big games. Several of the workers played competitive sports at both high school and college levels.

One day, the foreman had an idea. He staged an argument with a fellow worker over who could finish a line of wall first. After insults flew, wallets were flung out and a formal bet was made public. Other workers’ interest was piqued. They too wanted in on the action.

So every man tossed $20 into a hat and at the end of the day, the man who completed a side stretch of wall first would take home the winnings. It was a matter of both pride and money – and the men worked harder than they ever had before.

Soon this race became a regular event. Every Friday, the foreman would come to work with calculated lengths of wall to ensure an equal playing field.

Though the men only worked like dogs on Fridays, the foreman noticed a slow but gradual change in the attitude toward the work the other days of the week as well. As these attitudes began to change, the foreman was able to develop a culture that was more suitable for the line of work he was in, which made him much more successful.

Like the foreman, our success to create the right culture will boil down to two simple things:

  1. Understanding the motivations of our employees; and

2. Implementing the right a customs to meet those interests.

By tim brown
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