Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Sometimes we wake up with that horrible feeling that things are going to go wrong right from the start.  We burn our tongue on the coffee, fall over trying to get socks on, slide halfway down the driveway on the ice that we did not see and have something stuck between our teeth when we arrive at work.  The repeating pattern of bad things just keeps going on.  A donut falls apart, smearing jelly down the front of the white shirt that we wore today of all days. 

An employee quits, right when we thought that they were starting to learn their job.  It’s ten a.m. and we are thinking that maybe there is a future in digging ditches.  By the time five o’clock bell tolls, enough stuff has happened that we know it is not a coincidence and we are sliding underneath a large rain cloud. 

At home, things are about the same.  Our partner is sympathetic and has ‘had one of those days too’.  Yeah, right.  Not like ours.  We finally hit the sack feeling down, a little bit depressed and exhausted. 

The next day, we trip on our socks again.  Our balance is gone.  It is going to be another one of those days.  By noon, we have compiled a list of everything that has gone wrong and it seems like weeks since anything good happened in our lives.  The rain cloud is a full on flash flood by now.  People at the office are starting to avoid returning our glance and at the same time, a full-fledged pity party is going on around us.  Whispers filled with empathy, quietly expressed fears that the bad things will spread, all signs that we have sunk into a giant sinkhole and we will never find our way out.

The day ends and with our face written in dark misery.  An employee walks by, pats our shoulder and says “God never gives you more than you can handle.”  We stare ahead, try to pick up our shoulders, find that they are too heavy and just sigh.  Really, why would we want to find out how much we can handle?   This is just not fair.  We get to the parking lot and find that we left the lights on all day and the car battery is dead.  We pound the steering wheel, shouting our frustration.  Back in the office, the remaining staff hears the muffled screams and shakes its collective head.  Tomorrow, they know, won’t be any better.

Tomorrow, though, for some inexplicable reason, the sun is shining on our face.  We fall over once more while putting on our socks.  No one sees us grin, actually nearly laughing at ourselves.  Suddenly, we feel good.  Fortunately, no one can see any of this so we trudge downstairs and put on the ‘man down’ expression again.  After all, the good mood can’t last.  Breakfast is held in mournful meditation. 

On the way to work, we still feel, well, foolishly happy.  The change is inexplicable.  After all, nothing positive or miraculous happened and so it cannot possibly be right that we should feel happy.  The office staff is looking for more tragedy.  Life has not improved, someone took your parking space and the heat is down in the shop.  God is still handing us more stuff that ‘we can handle’ and we know that the office staff will still be in pity mode.  It is our job to put on that brave yet tragic face and let them know that we will survive in spite of the storm raging over us.

As we prepare to leave the car, we realize that this silly mood is not going to leave us and we are thoroughly embarrassed.  After all, what has happened to bring it on?  Who are we to feel good when we are expected to be down, half-sobbing at every turn?  We can’t, just cannot, walk into the shop looking cheerful, at least not until we find the winning lottery ticket on our desk.  We will be laughed at as soon as our backs are turned.  How do we sneak our new, light mood across when things have been going so wrong?  

It happened to me.  The bad stuff went on for a week and then some.  I had my list compiled and would read it off to anyone who wondered why I looked so completely down.  Suggestions that I start looking for the ‘good’ in my life started to sound like ‘It’s time to write your will.” 

After sitting in the car for a minute, though, I realized that I liked being in a good mood and that I am no longer of an age where embarrassment bothers me.  After all, I recently walked into a group full of mostly strangers with my zipper all the way down.  It didn’t hurt a bit.  A second glass of wine provided fabulous amnesia.

Know what?  The crew was not surprised.  They were relieved.  Things are finally getting back to normal.  Oh, I could make you a list of all the stuff that went wrong if you like.  It just wouldn’t change my good mood. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014


My horse has been called stubborn.  His real name is Sam.  When I first met him, he reminded me of Dick Butkus. In three years,  I have learned that attitude is pretty much everything.

I bought Sam before we could move into the farm where he would eventually live.  His first residence under my ownership was a boarding stable.  For some reason, the boarding stable owner decided that Sam needed some socializing and tossed him into a paddock with several residents that included an already-established lead mare who was one mean horse.  She had no trouble biting and kicking all of the other horses in the paddock and there was no question of her dominance. 

Sam was the new horse and was ostracized from the herd at first.  This is normal until a new horse can establish its position within the herd.  There really is a pecking order and new horses have to fight their way into it. 

A few days after he arrived, though, Sam was moving around with the rest of the herd.  All of the horses except for the lead mare left him alone to do whatever he liked.  The mare would move all the other horses out of the way by pinning her ears, then biting and kicking if necessary.  Each time she tried this on Sam, though,  she accomplished nothing.  I watched her pin her ears, bite him, turn and threaten and then actually kick him.  He ignored her.  Nothing bothered him.  He didn’t fight, threaten or react and was apparently unaware of her actions.  Eventually, she gave up and left him alone.

Horses learn fast.  Teaching them is pretty easy once you’re aware that all you have to do is create a pressure situation where only one answer is right.  At first, a horse will try every option and when it happens upon the correct one, it is rewarded with a release of pressure.  After two or three lessons, the horse stops trying every other option and does exactly what it is supposed to.

Sam is a little bit different.  He and I have developed a beautiful working relationship.  For most of the work that we do from the ground, I don’t even need a halter or rope.  He knows what to do and does it perfectly. 
He has limits.  I use a halter to walk him down to a pasture or to the trailer if we are going to ride.  I’ve done this for three years.  Sam is not supposed to eat grass when the halter is on him.  I yank hard on the halter rope when he does that.  It hurts a little and reminds him not to do that.

Remember the learning thing?  After a few hard bumps, most horses would realize that it hurts when they try to graze.  They stop doing it.  Sam is not most horses.  I lead him from the paddock at least four days a week.  He tries to graze at least three times per trip or six times per round trip.  At an average of thirty weeks without snow times six hard bumps per round trip times four days per week, you can figure that Sam gets bumped hard as a correction for trying to graze at least 720 times per year. 

He hasn’t stopped trying.

Neither have I.  You see, it takes someone to do the bumping. 

To keep trying the same thing with the expectation of a different result is someone’s definition of insanity.  There are times, though, that we keep trying for a different reason.  I keep bumping my horse.  If I don’t, he will eat grass.  That is something I won’t allow while he is under halter.

I keep going to work, too.  At times, it might be viewed as insanity, since the drive is the same each day, the arrival and departure times are pretty close and I do a lot of the same things, often at the same times.  While I have rarely judged myself as being successful, I have to keep doing this job because other people depend on it and I depend on the income. 

I am beginning to rethink the whole insanity definition.  Sam doesn’t really care.  Or maybe he realizes that we’re both just awfully stubborn.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

You're the expert

I recently received an email from a customer.  She was asking for personalizations on the backs of some jackets and her closing comment was, “I really don’t know what is the best size for the names on the backs.  Please give me an opinion because you’re the experts.”

My first reaction?  “Tell me what you would like.”  (I have edited that particular comment, which had far more words and far more emotional content.)

A couple of days ago we had another distributor visit the shop to talk about a design going on some caps.  We were discussing the options he had along with the client’s ultimate choice which really was the least attractive choice in my opinion.  I realize that this is all subjective.  We try to do what the customers want.  Both our customer and I laughed about the final choice and then he got serious and said “The customer is always right.” 

I disagreed.   “Not really.  In fact, hardly ever.”

The truth is that no matter how long we have been in business, twenty two years on November 2, we will never be experts in the eyes of some of our customers.  They will always give us recommendations as to how best to embroider a garment, how the design should be created, what we should do on the front, back or sleeve of a shirt and how we can get more customers.  While it is true that I don’t know everything, sometimes I wish that someone would find me a little bit knowledgeable.    

The dark recesses of my brain tend to gnaw on small incidents like the above and alter the form and content into usable and more digestible lint bits.  Sometimes the lint gets together and forms a hairball which then makes its way to the front of my brain where it is dispensed as, well, understanding.  This occurred a few thoughtful days after my encounter with the distributor who claimed that the customer is always right.  It goes like this.

In my mind, I rule the embroidery world.  My years of working with apparel and material and designs qualify me to have the last say in all matters embroidery.  Customers will ask for advice and accept it without question.  I am the expert as it were.  If there is a problem with a design, I’ll fix it.  If the customer changes their mind after I’ve done a design, they willingly pay for my time to make the changes.

Sadly, most customers only call me an expert when they wish to offer up an opinion.  A translation of “You’re the expert” would go like this:  “Let’s see if you can guess what I really want and then I’ll tell you afterward if you are right or wrong.”   The setup time and the sample time have no value to them.  The adjustments that have to be made should be simple, after all.

Once upon a time, I was asking one of our customers to pay a little bit faster than their norm of around seventy days.  Rather than face that particular issue and apologize, the customer came up with one of the worst responses ever, in the history of the world.  He said, “At least I give you projects to do.”

He is no longer a customer. 

These days, the people that we choose to work with value the services that we provide.  I don’t expect for the world to operate with me at the center of the embroidery expertise.  I also can’t do away with the little guessing games taking place in certain clients’ minds.  I do, however, choose when to keep a customer and when to toss them back into the pool of available clients.  Other decorators may see them as a good bet. 

Heck, we all have to be right at least once in awhile.   

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ethical Work

Last year, my odd neighbor was diagnosed with a brain tumor that might not have been operable, had it not been for insurance and the nearby Mayo Clinic.  The operation was successful.  He is still an odd character.  He is still alive to prove that.

What interested me the most about this particular event was not the operation or the miracle of his recovery.  I was absolutely amazed at the treatment he received from his very large global corporate employer. 
His doctors told him that he would not be allowed to return to work for several months.  His employer told him that he would be kept on at full salary for the duration of his recovery, that if he were to return within six months, he would go back to his old job and that if his recovery went longer, he’d be put in another equivalent position.  I was shocked when he told this to me.  I have no idea if he’s returned to work yet.  This morning he was walking his dog down the road when I passed him at around nine on the way to my own job so I kind of think that he is still practicing his early retirement. 

During the past few months, my company staff has experienced an incredibly high rate of, well, required time off.  We have pregnancies, difficulties during pregnancies, births, deaths, serious illness within families, children starting school, children participating in school activities and child care issues.  I can’t recall a day in the last month where at least one machine was not idle due to outside requirements.

It surprises me that my company’s staff are still productive and that people are still earning a living.  Work hours are lower than they have been during comparable months in past years and yet we are still producing at a better-than-breakeven rate.  While they seem to have less time to work, employees have begun working even more efficiently and effectively than they have in the past. 

I hear a great deal about the loss of the American Work Ethic these days.  In my own contrary way, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate.  Really and truly, I don’t think that the work ethic has diminished.  Instead, the extent of non-work duties has increased to the point where our available time for employment is shrinking.  Something has to give and that would seem to be work hours.

Think about it.  We used to have kids, wean them, send them away and we were done with them.  Nowadays, we are most likely taking care of a parent along with the kids.  Not only are there school conferences, there are nursing conferences, benefit planning conferences, medicine purchases, and illnesses and every one of these takes place during the day, when our employees are supposed to be at work.  The responsibilities assigned to them outside of their workplace are huge and it is pretty obvious that while we see less of our employees, they are working just as hard as they ever have.  Their time is just spread a whole lot thinner.
Don’t misunderstand.  I’m convinced that an awful lot of people really don’t want to work very hard.  We see them milking the system and their examples are hard to ignore.   One of my employees said that her children’s school required that mommies attend during the school day every Thursday.  She said (and this is direct from her) that a lot of the mommies could attend because they were collecting welfare instead of working. 

That shroud of negative is covering a whole bed of working individuals who spend their vacations settling Mom and Dad into a nursing home or buying the ten thousand back-to-school items for each child instead of cruising the Caribbean.  When they get back to work, we who remained behind are merciless and unsympathetic.  After all, they got to be away from work, right?  That should have been enough. 

Of course it isn’t enough.  It is exhausting and most of the time, a return to work brings a sigh of relief.  It is one place where those multiple responsibilities can be forgotten for a little bit of time and perhaps something can actually be accomplished.

So here is my own conclusion.  Instead of punishing employees for being gone a whole lot, I’ve decided to make it easy for them to be gone.  My only request of them is that they focus on their work when they are here at the shop.  If they are here six hours a day and they are six focused and productive hours instead of eight or nine less productive hours that are split between coordinating childcare, filling the pantry, picking out clothes for the kids’ first day at school and actually doing some embroidery, I am thrilled.  If they are a little bit happier because they are now relieved of the stress of not doing the best of work while juggling all the other issues in their lives, I am thrilled.

It would seem that there are better ways to create productivity than simply requiring more hours at work.  

Friday, September 12, 2014


Yet another Horse Discussion! 

Yes, we repeat the horse theme quite often, don’t we?  Quite honestly, I learn as much about people by observing horses as I learn about working with horses.

Last weekend we did a horse training clinic at our house.  There were four of us attending, two neighbors, my partner and me.  Our trainer follows a method of training developed by Clinton Anderson who is the current rock star of horse training.  It involves a lot of training at ground level and while not unique, it is my current favorite method.  Horses are generally safer to ride and more compliant after doing lots of groundwork.

All four of us have made unscheduled dismounts.  For the uninitiated, that means we’ve been bucked off or fallen off our horses at one point or another.  One neighbor was bounced off her horse this summer while we were riding together.  Her fall resulted in seven cracked or broken ribs, a punctured lung and a torn rotator cuff.  The other has been trying to get his horse to canter and has been summarily dismissed several times.  His horse has quit taking him seriously.  Both neighbors were afraid.  The one with the broken ribs has been afraid of actually riding her horse.  The other was understandably nervous about cantering.

We worked hard through the morning on Saturday, doing a lot of groundwork, getting corrected by our trainer over methods and techniques and generally preparing the horses for the main event.  By midday, all of our horses were calm enough to be ridden.  After lunch, we saddled them all up and one by one we mounted. 

Our Broken Rib neighbor was last.  She took her time getting her horse to move to a mounting block, messed with his hair and saddle for quite some time and then, took a deep breath and climbed onto him.  It was an anticlimax.  Her horse dropped his head and stood quietly while she went through her riding checks.  Then she moved off and went around the arena several times before it occurred to her that she really ought to get a picture or two for posterity.  It finally occurred to her that this was almost as exciting as her first ride!

The cantering was equally as exciting.  All four of us rode the outside track in the arena for awhile and then grouped ourselves at the center.  The cantering lad started out by trotting his horse for a few minutes.  As he rode, our trainer suggested that he move his horse to a canter ‘when he felt comfortable’.  Not long after, he was making circuit after circuit without a single buck, hop or side step.

The thing about learning is that it is rarely exciting.  Oh, our Broken Rib friend learned a really painful lesson about warming up her horse and actually working with him from the ground, which is why she attended the clinic.  That sort of lesson is not terribly desirable.  The better types are ones that aren’t accompanied by pain, danger, near death or broken bones.  The best lessons don’t even come with fanfare, they just get absorbed right into our lives without so much as a bruise.  That was the case last weekend.

Fear.  It locates us and paralyzes us.  We spend sleepless nights wondering what monster is lurking under the mattress, inside the closet or outside the window.  We start to believe that our horse hates us, that the world is against us or that the unfamiliar crowd at a party is all watching just us.  Fear. 

We learn, if we survive, that facing our fear is not necessarily a scary thing in and of itself.  Most of the time, nearly all of the time, we have made the fearsome thing so large in our own minds that it looks insurmountable.  Once we finally think our way through it, do a little bit of prep work and actually start to overcome the object, it becomes a non-event.  As often as television tries to make us believe that there should be a full orchestra and victory music at the successful conclusion, we discover that it really wasn’t worth being afraid in the first place. 

I am going to ride Sam some more this weekend.  He has launched me a couple of times now.  The last time really hurt.  I really hope I can get up the nerve to canter again.  The thought is frightening.  Oh wait, it’s a matter of preparing my horse.  Got it.  Sigh of relief in progress.  Sorry for the scare there. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Responsible parties

The other day, I presented a letter of reprimand to one of my employees.  He's worked for me for eight years and has been a mainstay of the business during that time.  He is a good person, a reliable employee and a good family man.  His attention to quality has been outstanding until the past year or so.  

He has ruined three large embroidery jobs during the past eight months.  The combined total loss has been greater than the rest of our embroiderers combined.   His most recent mistake was so bad that we had to order and send the replacement goods to another embroiderer because the customer had very little faith in our ability to do the job.

Only a week after the latest quality issue, he made the ultimate in foolish mistakes by putting a needle through his finger.  This became a worker’s compensation claim.  Normally this is something that is only committed by rookies and it only happens once.  The only way that a needle can pierce a finger is by putting that finger under a needle while the machine is running.  Rookies learn quickly that when the needles are going up and down at a rate of four hundred fifty and a thousand times per minute, the wise choice is to stop the machine before clearing a stray thread or adjusting fabric.  For a veteran to do this is unthinkable.  Turning off the machine before clearing threads becomes second nature to experienced embroiderers.

As a side note, in twenty two years, we have not paid out a worker’s comp claim on this sort of injury until this year.  This is not a common occurrence at all. 

So my employee and I had a conversation.  I read him the letter, we spoke of the issues at hand and I asked if something was wrong in his life that was causing him to slip up so much.  His answer was that there was nothing wrong. 

We discussed the most recent mistake.  I was informed that he had done a sample and that it was approved.  I asked why the rest of the order was not like the sample.  I received a shoulder shrug.

We moved on.  The needle-through-finger trick.    How did it happen?  He said that it was an accident.  I asked if maybe he wasn't a little bit responsible for the accident.  He said that he was not.  It was the machine's fault.

I asked who had pushed the start button?  He did.  Who had put his finger under the machine after it was moving?  He did.  "So", I asked, "didn't you have some responsibility for this happening?"

"No," he replied.  "It was an accident."

"How did you get married?" I asked.  Sometimes I'll change the subject.

"My wife and I decided to do so," he said.

"Who asked whom?"

"I asked her."

"So you are responsible?"

"Yes," he said.

"And how about the accident?" I asked.

"It was an accident."

I gave up.  Our conversation was finished, save for one final request on his part.  "Since I am agreeing to the letter of reprimand," he said, "I would like a raise of fifty cents an hour.  You should take some risks as well."

I am older and calmer than I once was.  I politely told him that we would consider a raise if he actually survives the next six months without an issue.  I did not commit an assault upon his person. 

As my employee talked, I discovered that he will take responsibility for the good things in his life.  He does not take any credit for the bad things.  They are someone else’s fault.  That was his consistent assertion throughout the course of our discussion.  At the end of our discussion, I learned two lessons. 

The first was that I could not help but consider him to be a Victim.  His life is a complete loss because he chooses to assert no control over the bad things that happen to him.  They are always the result of someone or something other than him. 

The second was something that I told him.  As he continued to take responsibility for the good and deny the bad, I mentioned to him that we live in the United States.  I said that one of the fundamentals of our country is something called Freedom.  When a person takes responsibility for the good AND the bad, they set themselves free. 

Think about it and get back to me, okay?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Problem Solving

I am in the middle of solving a horse problem, so here we go.

Warning: Horse-related discussion below!

You'll hear horse people talk about how precious their little Sugar is and how much Sugar loves 'mummy'.   

Forget it.  Horses don't have the capacity for love or humor or any of the other emotions that makes us humans so, well, Special.  Most likely, if horses were driving the buses, we'd all be sitting way in the back, by the way.  A personality for a horse is pretty much black or white.  In the horse’s mind, either the horse comes first or the rider comes first.

This weekend, my horse, Sam, launched me.  It wasn't just a quick 'get off me because I don't want you around'.  This was a full-fledged space shuttle to the moon shot.  I was in the air long enough to realize that the clouds looked really fluffy and cute and that I might be able to touch one if I could just reach up a little higher.

After re-entry and recovery, I got up, assessed the personal damage, grabbed the end of the rein and worked Sam in a big circle, back and forth, as fast as he could move.  Then I remounted, rode him out of the pasture we were using and carefully dismounted.  I even got his tack all put away before collapsing in pain.  Adrenaline is a really good friend at times.

 The thing is, I was not angry.  I was troubled.  The next day, armed with ibuprofen and a longe line, Sam and I went to the arena and worked from the ground.  He seemed fine.  The incident, for him, was forgotten as though it had never happened.

It bothered me a lot, though.  Sam doesn’t buck like that unless he is frightened.  I don’t frighten him.  I reviewed our ride, what I saw when I took off his tack, what he’d been like prior to the actual incident.  I realized that he is very touchy down at his right rear leg and that when something touches him there, he twitches.  I noticed that the pair of saddle bags was off center and hanging down right over that area.

My horse wasn’t being mean, he was trying to get away from something that bothered him.  For my part, I just had not paid attention when he first started twitching.  He was being a horse and it was my fault for not taking his warnings seriously.

There are two lessons here.  First, with a horse, if there is a buck when you try to get him to canter or move, your response is normally to ride through it.  The horse will eventually figure out that kicking out is too much work and will get on with the task at hand.  I’d better add that the bucking will stop if the rider survives and remains on the horse.

If this is a continuing problem and you want it to be solved permanently, though, you have to look at the cause and then figure out what is needed to correct it.  In this case, I have to go back and work on desensitizing his hindquarters a whole lot.  I’ll do a lot of patting, a lot of rubbing and hang his saddle bags on him a lot in order to get them comfortable.

The second lesson is that I now know that Sam is not going to give me a lot of chances to listen to him.  If something is wrong, I’d better be a whole lot faster at recognizing it.  Otherwise, he will solve it himself and we’ll just have to hope that my protective gear works.  He’s pretty sure that he always comes first. 

The interesting thing is that both of these ideas are applicable to people.  No, we don’t ride people through a buck.  We do tend to push hard when they’re resisting, though.  It is in our nature.  And yes, people do tend to place self-preservation above the survival of, say, their company. 

I’m fairly recovered now.  Thanks for worrying.  I’ve been working with him for some time each day and will be riding him by Thursday evening. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Self Reliance

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.   Ralph Waldo Emerson,  Self Reliance, Essays: First Series (1841).

Self Reliance.  The entire essay is a worth read, or re-read in my case.  I found my way to the essay today because of a speech by Jeff Danielson from Newsroom, the television series.  He gave it during a forum at a university.  I’d have to go watch the whole show to give a complete description.  It was an answer to the question of ‘why is the United States the greatest country on earth?’

He was preceded by two other participants who used the standard, “Freedom” and “melting pot” phrases.  His answer?  “It is NOT the greatest country on earth.”  He went on to say why.  Where we rank.  Facts, all negative, statements that are truths.  All reasons why we are not the best.

Why does it take a television show to speak on our behalf?  Why does it take an actor who has rehearsed his lines and a staged performance in order to tell the truth about the United States?   While I do not doubt his sincerity, I suddenly doubt the value of his performance beyond art.  He did say the truth.  I agree with his performance completely.  He did not tell us whether he, as a person, believes in what he said.  It looks a lot like, oh, Robin Williams playing the part of a gay man in “Birdcage”.  It was believable, it was funny and it did not tell us whether Robin actually was gay (I’ve no doubt that he was not). 

Today’s politicians are conformists.  They play party line, vote party line and voice popular opinions in order to get re-elected.  We travel further down the road toward sameness each day.  Nowadays, instead of seeing lightning fast changes in technology, about all we see are lightning fast enactments of party-line laws designed to allow us to give in just a little bit more and to give up just a little more freedom. 

I think the world of Emerson.  He wrote what he thought and lived his life by the guideline that was his own moral compass.  He did not seek party approval or permission from others to write and do as he did.  I follow that same principal.  It is a good thing to seek advice.  It is also great to get experience, to make mistakes and then resolve them.  It is often good to follow the rules to a certain extent, especially if there is proof that they produce a positive result. 

It is never good to do so blindly.  The uninformed ‘leaders’ that create our rules today are expecting us to do exactly that.  My life may slow down even more as I take some time out to discover exactly why I should obey a new law. 

Here is an epiphany.  A truly conservative person expects to take responsibility for his actions.  A truly liberal person wants to take the responsibility for someone else's actions. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Only if you want to.

My partner has threatened to make me a hat that says “Don’t ask me about my horse”.  Do not do this unless you are prepared to spend an afternoon discussing him, watching the slide and movie presentation, be invited out to ride him.  I promise that your eyes will glaze over and your hearing will be forever altered.  There is no subject more important to me than my horse.  There is no quicker route to boredom on your part.

In recognizing this, I feel it important to include a warning whenever my horse will be used in an analogy, simile or metaphor.  One like this:
Warning:  Horse Analogy Below

You’ve been warned, buckaroo. 

My horse has taught me more about managing human beings than all of the classes, hands-on training and books I have ever experienced.  Horses have been called the best teachers.  For me, that is an absolute truth.

Horses resist change.  Take one out of a field, put it into a pen and tell it to move and the answer you get is, “Huh?”   After that, you get, “No way.”  With patience and a little work, the horse will eventually recognize that the easiest course is to move in the direction you want him to move.  Consistent instructions will give you the same exact results every single time. 

Nearly all horses will react in exactly the same way if treated the same.  Their language is universal and simple.  Put pressure on a spot, wait for the horse to try everything but the action that you desire, keep the pressure there and when the horse does the right thing, immediately release the pressure.  After a time, it takes very little pressure to get the horse to do what you want.   The horse has learned something new!

Employees resist change.  Try suggesting a way to improve performance and you get a blank stare.  Tie it to some sort of pressure and eventually you get cooperation.  Do it long enough and you would think that the employee might just eventually start carrying out the new process on his own.

The trouble is, employees are not horses.  How I wish they were sometimes.  The difference is in the size of our respective frontal lobes, the part of our brains that allow us to joke, love, desire and rebel.  Horses are pretty much unable to do any of that.  Humans do it all.  And if you want a human to keep doing his or her job properly, you have to find a way to make them want to do it.  They won’t just carry out their duties because we taught them. 

The art of management is not in the teaching of a method or the successful increase in productivity.  The art of management relates to getting staff members to want to do things the productive way.  Anything less than want creates a possibility that things will change back to the way that they were before. 

Because we all resist change.   

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On planning ahead

August will shock me with the sixtieth anniversary of my introduction to this planet as a living being.  This past year has been one of contemplation, ill humor and realizations.

During the past year, I realized that while many people take the bullet train to maturity, wealth and success, arriving almost before they have begun the journey, my own path to adulthood has followed an old, rutted dirt road filled with mud puddles and hazards where I have slowly picked my way along, often following detours or getting completely lost.  I certainly won't be skidding into the end of my life, although I know that a good shower will be required before I meet my maker.

My youthful dreams of a private jet and millions of dollars have eluded me.  In fact, my business has never reached a million dollars in sales.  Team Mates is twenty three years old on November 2, 2014.  It has provided my family with a modest income, a home or two, a couple of cars and part of the educations of my children.  It has not, however, provided me with retirement savings.  In fact, I imagine that my company has been my traveling companion down the old country road, reaching toward profitability as I have wandered toward maturity.  It is clear that neither of us is even close to our respective ends.

It became obvious during the past year that my company would provide me with enough income to live a decent, if modest life for as long as I worked.  If I hired a replacement, the cost would be higher than what I cost right now.  Selling the company would result in a high tax bill, a very low net gain and the requirement that I continue to work.  I might as well stay with Team Mates.

As a former accountant, I was very capable of calculating all of my unattainable financial goals.  As a human being, I was depressed.  Not even a million dollars would be enough for retirement, even if I was extremely frugal.  I would never, ever be able to quit my job or do 'what I wanted to do' or live the carefree life that I have so often seen my friends living because they managed to do what I have not been able to do; they worked and saved and acted like adults with their money and with their lives.  They were able to retire.

One day, I looked up and saw the rutted dirt track meander into the distance and smiled.  Retirement is out of the question and there is so much that I want to do.  There is working with my horse, working with other horses, gardening, making wine, writing and reading.  There are my children and grandchildren. The list is endless.  I have so many hobbies and desires.  I have a limited attention span.  Call it ADHD for Adults if you wish.  Add to the mix that I work full time.  Is there any wonder that I am never finished?

I realized at that moment that in a way, I already find the time to do what I enjoy.  There is already enough time.  I rarely find that there were not enough hours in a day.  There are, in fact, exactly the right number.  If more are needed, they can be borrowed from the following day because there are always more after that.  In fact, borrowing days is essentially an interest-free, non-repayable loan that renews at the end of each day.

This led me, of course, to the idea that I don't have much  in the way of savings.  On consideration, though, I recognize that I have very little debt.  Whatever I absolutely need, I usually pay for very quickly, except the new or used truck needed for hauling the horses, which I can't actually buy at the moment.  As long as I work, I can pay for the things that I need.

So while retirement is out, life will be fine.  I'll pick younger friends who are still working.  That way I don't have to feel badly about not sitting around playing bridge in the afternoon.  Or commuting between Minnesota and Arizona and never really knowing what season it is.

In the meantime, I'm leaving the shop at five today, driving home to a quick glass of wine.  Then I'm tossing a saddle on Sam and we'll go riding down to the power plant where we'll pick a few raspberries and do some circles around trees.  When we're done, we will go back home where I'll put Sam in his paddock, wander through the gardens and maybe come up with a plan for burning the big brush pile this weekend.

That's far enough ahead for now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's a process

In the interest of disclosing as little history as possible, which would make this a novel rather than a short commentary, I'll just say that I have a strong interest in horses.  It all began about three years ago when one of my sons and his wife enticed me with their horses.  As with all things that capture my starving, attention deficit mind, the interest blossomed into a full-fledged need for a horse, a place to store him and some sort of ability to ride him.  

I have little experience with animals.  Cats have been a part of my life for many years, if they are actually considered participants in lives other than their own.  Oh and we have some koi.  I've never owned a dog although my dad had one once, a long time ago.  The dog only lasted about six months.  He really wasn't suited to our house when I was growing up.  

Buying a horse was really easy.  We traveled south for three hours after seeing one on Craig's List, discussing the fact that you should never ever buy the first horse you see.  Three hours and fifteen minutes after starting south, my checkbook was lighter and I was the proud owner of two horses.

That was when my learning began.  Having a horse is an investment of time and money that probably is better spent on other pursuits, like beating oneself about the head and shoulders with a large piece of lumber.  Vets have to make housecalls because we don't simply load them into the van for a checkup, hay has to be bought early in the year, before supplies run out, sufficient land has to be available for running, grazing and manure (never ever think that manure gets rid of itself).  And there is a time commitment or else you wind up with pasture statues who consume every dime you have without giving back a darned thing.

I love my horse.  He is amazing and magical and the only reason a person these days ever needs to have an equine partner is emotional and not even remotely logical or rational.

Horses are wonderful teachers.  They are.  No, they don't hold classroom hours and the tuition is high but not impossible.  The lessons, though, are all about management and learning and understanding.  I have, in fact, learned much about managing my company and employees.  I've learned about patience.  I have learned how to do something absolutely without expectation of reward, because a horse completely lacks the capacity to 'like' people or things.  They can't joke around, enjoy kisses and hugs, look forward to petting or any of those things that dogs and cats can do.  This is scientific fact, by the way.  Horses have an extremely underdeveloped frontal lobe which is where reasoning and love and playfulness are found.  

Assuming that I have now upset every horse owner who truly believes that their horse loves them, we shall move on. 

Teaching most subjects is pretty darned black and white, except history which apparently no longer exists.  Okay, I'm an older person so I'll say that it used to be black and white.  Some of this Common Core crap covers the whole color spectrum and will be eliminated from this (and any other) discussion.  Moving on here.  

Teaching involves facts, not emotions.  It assumes logical answers to questions.  One answer per question is helpful.  Horses are totally reactive and non-emotional.  They don't reason their way through things, they just answer.  Wrong answers are deadly in the wild.  If you learn to think like a horse, you remove the emotional value from your thought process and the answers, especially when it comes to managing a company or a person, are much more clear.  Rules make more sense.  Systems and processes are much easier to follow.  

I'm stopping right here.  That way there might be more to write in another blog.  Continuity, right?  Speaking of which, I'll have to say something about community again one of these days.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


I love epiphanies.  When one occurs, it just makes at least the whole day better, and sometimes even carries over for a week or so.

Yesterday I had one.  It didn't involve work, at least not directly.

It went something like this:  "It's time to recognize that we are no longer on our own."

We used to live in the suburbs.  We had our four tenths of an acre, surrounded by trees, sitting across from a park filled with baseball and softball fields.  The street was noisy and there was lots of traffic.  We had gardened the plot until there really wasn't much more to be done and the inside of the house was going to be next, just for something to do on weekends.

We didn't know a single neighbor.  Not one.  I could wave at one guy, whose name is Arthur, as I drove by his house.  Aside from that, nothing.  Oh, there was also Lance who lived behind us and hated us because our fence had been located on his property for twenty years.  He would have a few beers and come out once in awhile and rail at me over that.  I didn't really care.  Minnesota has beneficial use laws, so technically the property was mine. I found out that Lance had died, although I only found out after we moved.

We lived there for fifteen years.  And knew absolutely no one.

Two years ago, we packed up and moved to the country.  We bought five acres that had a house, a barn, a second large garage and then acquired two horses.  We moved in our own and spent the first few months waving at the few cars that passed by since we knew that most of the drivers lived on our gravel road.  One or two waved back.  What a thrill!

One day, not long after we moved in, a couple of the neighbors rode their horses up the driveway to introduce themselves and meet our horses.  Then we started getting invitations to various places for drinks, barbecues and so forth.  And then we found ourselves offering help when needed.  The ladies down at the corner needed some hay brought down from another barn.  Someone else was looking for hay.  Somebody needed a little extra shoveling help.  The list of friends grew, even though we couldn't even see most of our neighbors' houses.

Yesterday, I was looking at Facebook pictures of the neighbors all helping each other stack hay.  We couldn't help because we were borrowing a trailer from one of the neighbors in order to pick up two hundred bales that I needed for our own horses.  I did realize, with a sigh, that I'd be called on to do something down the road.  In fact, we're helping to take care of the petting zoo and kennel down on the corner over the coming weekend.

That's when the epiphany arrived.  It was a negative at first.  "If the ladies down the road couldn't take care of themselves, then they need to hire some help instead of relying on the rest of us to pitch in."  No, it doesn't sound nice.  And yet, that's what the suburbs and cities do to us.  "Leave me alone," is the standard neighbor cry.  "I never ask for help and never want to be asked" is the statement of the day.

Then I realized that the truth is, we now belong to a community.  People work together to make their lives better.  None of us is rich.  None of us has the resources to carry on alone.  We do our best to manage our own acreages and don't actually have to have contact on a regular basis.  The thing is, we do it anyway.  We borrow stuff from each other, we return it when we're done, we pop on over to the neighbor's to mow or shovel snow or load hay because we know that they appreciate the help.  That's how communities work.

We are no longer on our own.  We have actual neighbors in an actual neighborhood.  It is a little bit tiring on a social level because my community-serving muscles are atrophied from years of living in cities and hiding away.  Working them just takes a little time, though.  In the meantime, having neighbors makes me smile.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I just woke up

I feel almost as if I've been in hibernation. It seems like only yesterday and here we are, four years later. My first blog in that long. Huh. I'm feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle. Look at all the options you can put into your blog now! There are new pictures, new ways to post, new themes, new, what the hell are these gadget thingies?

 All right, this is dealt with. I'm adding nothing. You're right. If the writing stands on its own, who needs pretty background colors or soft, floating music? We're here to impart information, aren't we? At very least, it is time to muse for my own amusement.


Team Mates has changed a lot in four years, too. It is often said that a company is a reflection of its owner. It is also said that husbands and wives morph into twins if they stay together for long enough. We'll stick with the company image, though. Much more palatable.

I went through a metamorphosis about four years ago. I learned, through the commission of many errors, that emotions are unnecessary within a company and that a certain amount of detachment is required if one is to manage effectively. There are many clues available to the thinking person. I should have read them. The clues consist of things like, "The whole shop goes quiet when the boss walks into the room." There are many. "People find excuses to be elsewhere when the boss is around." "Employees make lots of mistakes and then won't admit to them." "People arrive late and leave early." "Deliveries are not on time." There are, as I say, a lot of clues.

I blew up for the final time one day about three years ago. In my head it was this totally logical argument. "The employees need to hear that I am angry and upset, so I'll go out and yell at my shop manager in the middle of the shop floor. People always straighten up for a few weeks after I get angry." So I stomped out, gave my best impression of a baby with diaper rash and my shop manager walked out the door. She quit.
It took a few days to realize what I had done. I wound up begging her to come back by the way. We talked. I made her a promise that I would never do that again.

She came back to work. I have not yelled since then. I haven't even felt the urge to do so. Our shop runs better than it ever has. It is built on service. We are honest and we get things done. I have the best staff ever and they've all been with Team Mates for a long period of time. Many have been here for over five years, in fact. We deliver on time. We focus on quality. We work together. We talk together and work out issues in reasonable and fair ways. Above all, when walking in the door in the morning, I feel happier and even successful.

A company is a reflection of its owners.  From 2009 until today, I have seen that particular statement as it really is.  More later.