Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breaking the Mould - Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Willie Schmidt Owns A Car

The Venezuelan jungle to the South of El Tigre was not as lush or dense as I had expected, and the altitude meant that the air was a little cooler and the rains a little less frequent.

In the southern summer it was pleasantly warm with a high cloud keeping off the worst of the sun and a pleasant breeze moving the air whenever the car stopped.

Señor Schmidt told me that it would take about three and a half hours to reach the rig so he settled down for the drive and I spent the time rubbernecking at the countryside.

It was difficult to characterise it at first because the land was dotted with the most twisted trees I had ever seen.

They were at fairly regular intervals, about twenty to thirty feet apart, and they grew in every conceivable direction except up.

They would start growing in one direction then suddenly shoot off in the opposite direction while sending a third branch in no direction in particular, as long as it wasn't related to either of the first two.

No tree had a shape that remotely resembled any other.

These were the only trees that were growing and I was amazed that the fences were held up with posts made from them.

Since the trees were no more than two metres tall I could only assume that for each post a whole tree had been cut down.

The more gross deformities had been removed with a chainsaw, then it was placed in a hole in the right position for the fence wire to be nailed to it.

The result was not pretty but it worked.

The road was unusual for Venezuela, in that it was smooth with very few potholes.

Señor Schmidt did not have to fling the pickup from side to side to avoid holes in the road, which he did have to do in town.

This road had been laid by the oil company to service the new oil field, and had been built less than three years ago.

The gentle undulations and lack of drama made it very difficult for me to stay awake.

I must have slept for an hour or more with my head on the window and was woken by the pickup oscillating from side to side quite violently.

Looking out I could see that we were crossing a river.

As I woke up and looked around I could see that a large concrete slab had been laid across the bed of the river.

The theory seemed to be that you just drive in and splash your way through.

Señor Schmidt, seeing that I was awake was keen to explain that the rains had brought boulders down from the hills in the torrent and they were left on the ford when the river receded.

They were only cleared if heavy transporters went through, and for the rest of the time everybody else just had to pick their way through.

Now that I was awake he was keen to engage me in conversation.

Perhaps he was lonely driving on his own, or perhaps the complete lack of pressure from me had made him curious enough to try to find out more about what was going to happen on his rig.

He started by asking me where I had come from, how long had I been doing this kind of work, which other rigs had I worked on etc, until he had a good idea of my background without actually finding out what it was that I was going to do to his rig.

Having got him this far I was reluctant to jeopardise progress by trying to sell him on something that he had not asked for.

I decided to keep quiet a little longer until I thought that Willie Schmidt was ready to ask.

It is always difficult at the beginning of a project to say what is going to happen or how progress is going to be made because so much depends on what is needed or what is missing.

Instead of making something up about what I was going to do I postponed the subject by asking Señor Schmidt about his own past.

I had expected a traditional oil industry background, which would normally involve a story about a shortage of funds in his early twenties which was going to be temporarily relieved by a summer job on the rigs.

One summer stretches to two and pretty soon he is looking at retiring without ever figuring out what he was going to do after his summer on the rigs was over.

As usual when you take time to listen to people he surprised me with the variety of the work he had done in Venezuela and some of the insights he dropped into his conversation.

He described one job he had in Caracas where he was the Regional Sales Manager for a large detergent company.

There was a sales force of around thirty five, each of whom had a large imported car and spent most of the time tearing around the pot-holed roads chasing orders.

Schmidt was under pressure to reduce his transport costs, part of which amounted to a new car for each salesman every two years. At first it seemed impossible.

After two years the cars were wrecked, and if anything they needed to be replaced even more frequently for the salesmen to continue to give a good impression to their clients.

Señor Schmidt told me his idea.

When he had first arrived the cars had been leased and at the end of the two-year lease they were given back to the leasing company, almost worthless, in exchange for new ones.

He suggested that instead of returning the cars to the leasing company at the end of two years, they continue paying for another year then give the car to the salesman.

I could see him glancing sideways as he drove, having told me this to test me and watching to see if I had understood.

I was impressed, and asked him if it had worked. It was obvious from the pride in his voice and the straightening of his back as he spoke that it had.

He told me that the three years had been a bit of a sticking point at first because everybody still wanted a new car every two years, but when it was made clear that this was not going to happen slowly things started to change.

It is impossible to drive anywhere in Venezuela without the vehicle becoming covered in dust, and the further you go the worse it gets, yet when Señor Schmidt looked down at the company car park the cars were looking unusually clean.

He started to notice little personal touches being added to
the cars that had not been there before, here a Madonna on the dash board or a rosary hanging from the mirror, there some mud flaps, over there a chromed exhaust and that, he told me, was why he had done it.

At the end of three years the cars which were handed over to their new owners bore no resemblance to the two year old wrecks which had been previously given back to the leasing company.

The cars which were given to the salesmen were accepted with pride and were driven away to begin another long life as a family car.

The cost to the company was less due to the longer lease but the salesmen now took such care of their vehicles that at the end of their three years on the rough Venezuelan roads the majority still looked as if they had just come out of the showroom.

I asked Señor Schmidt what was the fastest car in the world. He said a Ferrari.

I told him no, it was a hire car.

Señor Schmidt told me to call him Willie.

I had used the analogy of the hire car in the past when trying to explain to people the concept of ownership. The word "Ownership" becomes a cliché which is bandied around as a sort of universal blame. "They just don't have any sense of ownership," is a frequently heard complaint about a workforce but it is said by someone with little idea of what the "Ownership" thing is which is missing or how to set about giving "It" to "Them".

I find it very refreshing to remind people of the difference in attitude which defines the difference between owning something and not owning it.

When you jump into a hire car the last thing you think about is washing it.

We sit in the driver's seat, throw whatever we are carrying onto the back seat then have a quick check to make sure that all the parts to make it go are in the right place before twisting the key.

We crash it into gear and with spinning wheels we fishtail out of the car park.

Our clutch control may improve with use but our attitude does not.

I knew from experience, as I had torn the bottom out of a beautiful silver Alfa Romeo which I had hired.

It was on a mountain track in Sicily the previous summer and it had been less interesting to me than if the volume knob had come off the radio.

It was not my car, I didn't own it.

When we buy a car, we first make a lot of decisions about it.

What colour, what level of trim, what engine and any number of other variations that allow us to make that vehicle ours.

Even with a second hand car we still decide which one is going to be ours and based on those decisions we become the owner.
We drive home carefully listening to the sound of it, we turn into the drive, emerging slowly so that everybody can see who the new car belongs to, then out comes the sponge and wax.

Because this is our car we are going to take care of it, we own it.

Willie had taken his sales force from driving hire cars to driving their own cars and he knew the benefit to his company of the difference.

I told Willie that what he had done was to create the conditions for what we called "Ownership".

He told me what that meant in terms of pride and responsibility for the individual.

The warm breeze was having its effect on me again, and I could feel my eyelids growing heavy. Just before I gave up and went to sleep again I turned to Willie and told him what I was going to give to the rig crew.

I told him I was going to give them ownership of the rig, and as I settled down again I took a quick look across at Willie as he drove.

He was smiling.

I had a good feeling.

He had understood and was on my side.

As my eyes closed I thought about this new relationship with Willie.

My arrival in Venezuela had sent a huge negative message to him which was reinforced by the deputy country manager attempting to sell my process to him.

Ordinarily this would have doomed any working relationship because Willie, already personally affronted by my presence was then being told by his boss to accept me.

Taking the pressure away was a deliberate strategy which had allowed Willie the space he needed to make up his own mind.

Now by listening instead of talking I had discovered that Willie, in common with most other human beings, was a remarkable individual who, although he did not understand the buzzwords of Management speak, did understand the changes that occurred when you gave people pride and self-respect.

That was a good start.

Peter A Hunter

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