Listen, Listen, Listen

I’ve heard it said that you can learn from anyone, but you can only do that if you actually listen to them. If they aren’t talking, ask. Even if you choose not to take anyone’s suggestions they’re likely to be happy you even consulted them.

I was talking to some of the floor guys at a ball mill in Kansas City one day as I was admiring one of their machines. Our furnace heated twenty-foot-long round billets of two to six inches in diameter, which were then dropped between two shaped rollers that pressed the bars into directly into a collection of balls that dropped straight down from the mechanism and rolled away to the cooling tumbler. (The orange-red balls were always beautiful to watch but they made an incredible amount of noise; that was by far the loudest industrial facility I was ever in.)

The bars rolled out of the side of the furnace lengthwise onto a pair of indexing chains. The chains had hooks at intervals which allowed them to pull each bar sideways to where it could drop down into the shaping mechanism. The millwright I was talking to told me the indexing chains were new. The guys on the floor used to pull the bars into place with long hooks but they all thought that process was ridiculous and should be automated. The engineers didn’t listen to them.

Those same engineers, however, ended up doing that job themselves for a few weeks during a strike and finally saw the inefficiency of it for themselves. Then—and only then—did they automate the process.

It’s a little thing, but I think it speaks to a larger issue, which is that it’s all too easy to not listen to people when you don’t think you have to. I’ve seen situations where the hourly workers and even some professionals are all too happy to come in, do their piece by rote, and go home without thinking about anything too much. I also understand that relations between labor and management can be contentious. That’s fine, but there are still plenty of people who have observations that might be of use. Seeking the ideas out and discussing them keeps people involved in the process.

Most technical people, and particularly in software if they’re any good, are always interested in finding better ways to do things. Getting their feedback and incorporating their ideas (or letting them do so on their own), where possible, is one of the most important ways to enhance job satisfaction and morale in a company. Let’s face it, you can’t always pay more, and paying more doesn’t always produce results anyway. You need to take advantage of every piece of creativity and desire your people have. People want to feel like they are listened to and developed actively.

A recent job posting illustrated these points beautifully by emphasizing that every developer got access to a nice suite of development tools and, here’s the kicker, a full subscription to Safari Books Online, which is an online repository that gives access to a huge collection of computing and technical books. All the industry classics are there along with multiple volumes teaching every language, tool, and technique you could ever want. (I’ve maintained my own full subscription for a few years now.) This may be standard procedure in some places but it isn’t in most. Providing a supportive environment generates a lot of enthusiasm and that particular posting drew an exceptional number of responses.

Employees, in the end, do have to show up and provide value as they are directed, but you can make them a lot happier and more productive by being involved in what they’re doing. Most of them want to do a great job and learn and be recognized. Don’t wait for them to come to you, go ask. And when they talk, listen to them.

An even more important group of people to listen to are your customers, though this is better understood by most people.  Sometimes the customer has already identified the problem and sometimes you have to help them figure out what the problem is.  How you listen depends on their understanding of the problem and the nature of the solution you’re offering.  If you have a canned product or service you might be the expert and the listening and negotiating will be about the terms of applying your solution.  If your solution is more adaptive or unique then you’ll need to listen and negotiate even more carefully to ensure your proposals address their needs.

How well you solve their problems, or even if you get to solve them (or continue to solve them), will depend on how well you solicit information from them and listen to the answers.

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