Honest wrong beliefs or just pig-headedness?

September 27, 2011

Both my grandfathers were self-made men who did well during the Great Depression and retired quite comfortably, if not wealthy by today’s standards. Each began with an 8th grade education and nothing backing them up but grit and determination, and each feeling graced by having survived serious crashes on Indian motorcycles. My mother’s dad started as a packing boy at General Electric in Youngstown, Ohio at age 15 and retired at age 65 as plant general superintendent. Fifty years of service with one company. Just imagine. He had a lot of plaques on the wall thanking “E. Scott Hossel” for some sort of service or another all those years.

My father’s dad was shoveling coal in the basement of Stokely Van Camp’s in Indianapolis when the 3rd child came and he knew he had to do something else to support the family. After a brief fling in the undertaking business (he was too sensitive) he began driving an oil truck. One day the brakes failed on his tanker while coming down a steep grade to a river. He managed to avoid several other trucks and vehicles and, rather than take out the bridge, he chose the river, where the truck exploded nonetheless. After escaping by swimming under a river of flames, he was fired for his efforts. Undeterred, he parlayed a succession of driving jobs into eventually buying his own rig and wound up owning 6 gas stations and the fuel oil and gas distributorship for a county in Southern Indiana. Even when he was quite elderly, his friends loved to tell the story how “Bill Sedam saved all those people then swam for a mile (or was it 2 or 3?) beneath a flaming river to escape and that SOB fired him!”

I tell you about my grandfathers because I think of them when I encounter one of the most frequent obstacles to Lean implementation. On good days I call it “honest wrong beliefs” a term oft-used by my colleague Eric Timmis. On bad days, I call it simple “pig-headedness,” a term sometimes employed by my wife, but that’s another story.  My grandfathers, who both lived well into their eighties, carried a lot of these beliefs to their graves. One grandfather bought a new Oldsmobile every year and even for the very last one he purchased right around 1980, he would not drive it off the lot until the dealer put “tubes in those damn tubeless tires!” After all, he had been driving for nearly 70 years and he knew what worked. The other grandfather refused to smoke anything but no-filter Lucky Strikes, because “the chemicals in those damn filters will kill you!” I don’t know where he got his information, but Grandpa had been right about a lot of things so when I began experimenting with cigarettes in junior high, I avoided those damn filters myself.

We encounter similar situations in our Lean process work all the time. With one builder we find a purchasing guy who really believes it pays off to bid every single piece of a house to five vendors each quarter. At another we encounter the field superintendent who simply cannot comprehend how he can improve the schedule that’s sitting at 120 days. One day it’s an excavator who sees nothing wrong with an extra 3 feet over-dig around a basement perimeter. The next day an HVAC contractor habitually over-specs the compressor tonnage even when experience shows he is making things worse, not better, and costing both the builder and the homeowner a lot of money. I recall a design center manager who truly believed you cannot sell a home without offering unlimited combinations of posts, rails and spindles to the customer. The next day it’s a company president who insists you cannot design a killer elevation without at least a 10/12 pitch and a dozen roof breaks.

Honest wrong beliefs or just pig-headedness? The impact is the same, regardless. Each case represents in waste and hence increased cost and lower margins.  An awful lot of those in homebuilding are self-made, entrepreneurial types who came to their beliefs through years of blood, sweat and tears. The really good ones can sort out what is essential and still remain open to new models and paradigms. Many others though, hold on to wrong beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence – and that’s a shame. It’s a painful thing to see when people hurt themselves needlessly, especially in this economy. How about you? Could it be that the only thing holding you back is – you?


Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve products, process, and profits. A senior contributing editor to Professional Builder, Scott has written award-winning commentary on all aspects of the business of home building and won the 2015 Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's most prestigious prize, for his commentary in Pro Builder. Scott invites you to join TrueNorth's Lean Building Group on LinkedIn and welcomes your feedback at scott@truen.com or 248.446.1275.


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