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Working On and In the Business

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Ever since it was suggested that you couldn’t work on your business from a creeper under a car, shop owners have been trying to find a way to extricate themselves from whatever it was they were doing in the business in order to somehow start working on it—this shop owner included.

But, the fact of the matter is, that common saying oversimplifies the realities we face as small business owners in this industry. It doesn’t take into account the tricky and slippery nature of removing yourself from the everyday chaos of actually getting the work done. I know, because I’ve struggled with working on it instead of in it for many years. The problems lie in the creative tension that exists between where you are, where you need to be and the hard work involved in getting you there.

I came to work on a recent morning with a laundry list of on it things I wanted to accomplish, almost all of them management and leadership related. Regardless of what I might get accomplished, the list will continue to grow. It will increase because it is impossible to catch up, to finish enough of the old to-do list quickly enough to compensate for the constantly expanding new one.

Case in point: I was out of the shop all day prior to my laundry-list day. Not by design, but by demand!

It started with a regularly scheduled network marketing meeting. But, that was after my wife managed to fall in the middle of the night and I received a text from our daughter that our youngest grandchild was down with the croup, couldn’t breathe, needed to get to the doctor and possibly the hospital, which meant she would need help. Sitting in L.A. traffic for the two hours there and two home, fighting the urge to worry about stuff you have no control over, gives you more than enough time to think about your to-do list.

I returned to the shop 45 minutes before we opened in the morning—more than enough time to get a running start on the day. Only, I couldn’t. There was a note on my desk informing me that the alignment machine was down, which meant an early morning call to tech support two time zones east of here. My lead tech had worked on the problem for hours the day before and neither he nor I could afford to allow him any more time to work on anything that didn’t have at least four wheels!

There was also a note on my desk regarding a problem car that was back for another run at an elusive underboost code. The code, diagnostics and other problems meant more time spent following each reasonable solution down the rabbit hole.

Add in the “normal” calls and crises we have all come to anticipate, not just expect, and, by 8:30 a.m., an hour after we officially open and two after my arrival, I was in the middle of what you and I would consider a pretty normal Tuesday. And maybe that’s the point. What you and I have come to accept as normal is anything but for anyone else in just about any other profession.

THINKSTOCKOn it? In it? What’s the difference?

I’ve finally come to realize these strategies can work in tandem and I have the first ever Ratchet+Wrench Management Conference and Greg Sands’ keynote address to thank for it. Greg’s assertion was that you have to remain in it—invested and passionate about it—to work on it. At least, that’s what I took away from it.

You can’t just sit on the beach and fix whatever is wrong with your business over the Internet. You can get the numbers and recognize trends. You can monitor the Key Performance Indicators and dial in from just about any place on the planet. You can direct your people to do anything you want or need them to do. But, you’ve got to be there to see it, feel it and understand what’s going on.

And, perhaps most important, your people—the people you lead, who have chosen to follow—need to see you there!

But, here’s the other side of that coin:

You can’t do any of those things if you are drowning in the everyday chaos of working in the shop. You can’t do any of the important things you have to do in order to fix whatever is broken until you back far enough out of it to achieve the perspective you will need to recognize where the train has left the track. You’ve got to establish the policies and procedures that will allow you to slowly but surely back away from the storm. You’ve got to back out of it to see which fires burn the brightest and ignite most often to know what needs to be addressed first.

The solution to the on it/in it conundrum isn’t an either or. It is a skillfully and delicately balanced mix of both. It is learning how to work on it from in it, but not so deeply in it that you lose track of time and space and fail to address the important issues that block the way to a better, less stressful life.

You can’t fix it while working under a hood, despite the fact that too many of us find working under the hood eminently more comfortable. It’s hard not to gravitate there. But it won’t get you the margins you need to succeed. Nor will it create, implement or execute the marketing programs required to grow your business.

The epiphany is balance. At least, it was for me.

The key is creating an environment that can exist without your everyday intervention and recognizing how and when the environment you have created benefits from your involvement. The key is knowing how deeply involved you need to be. Or, more to the point, how little is enough.

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