I have a friend who was almost fired from their job. Let’s call him Buddy. He did what most professionals do and quit before the ax fell. He was able to do this because he, like most professionals who saw something negative on the horizon, aggressively looked for a new job and was able to leave well before he was let go. Although there was no guarantee he was going to get walked out the door the signs were there and it was obvious to all that it was most likely inevitable. It wasn’t that my friend was incompetent, although from the outside you would think so. Buddy mostly did a good job. He had high energy, a moderately good attitude, and genuinely cared about his responsibilities. The problem was that It was one of those jobs that was at odds with the job holders personality. Buddy was kinda good at it but wasn’t perfect. This job was highly detail oriented and was built on a foundation in absolute rules, and that was very much at odds with his action oriented and flexible nature. He would miss things every now and again, and they would be the type of things that the organization looked very unfavorably on.
I have to admit that I always maintained an affinity for this guy. I saw a reflection of myself in Buddy. I guess it is why I am referring to him as Buddy, because we became good friends, in fact he was my Buddy. This means that in watching him from the outside, I knew that if I wasn’t very careful I could easily fall into the situation he found himself in. This whole thing got me thinking about being good, but not good enough. It also got me thinking about what is an acceptable level of failure and how they are different in different organizations.
There are levels of failure that are acceptable for our types of personalities. Let me offer a comparison between two examples from the services industry. Think about the person who works in the office of a smallish HVAC company. The kind of company that runs 20-30 repair trucks. If each technician can complete approximately three appointments per day that means the total company orders are going to average 60-90 incoming service appointments. Now Imagine if you are an administrative professional who isn’t all that detail oriented but responsible for managing those appointments. Maybe you put in 50 to 100 appointment times a day into a scheduling program. That won’t be your only job as this is a small company and all employees have multiple responsibilities. You also need to do things like managing parts and change orders. Considering the volume of service calls, there probably are 50-100 parts that are needed to fix the various broken HVAC systems. The total amount of entries into the system you are managing daily is probably in the 200-300 range, to keep it simple we’ll say it averages 250 per day. This is why it’s a full time job, managing 250 different things in a day takes time. Over the course of a 20 day work month the total volume is about 5000 different actions.
Now let’s imagine there is one error per month, that’s a failure rate of 0.02%. That seems to be a perfectly reasonable failure rate, at least to me. The challenge is the cost of failure. We are only talking HVAC, but ordering a part or sending a technician to the wrong address could cost hundreds of dollars in restocking fees, shipping costs or lost productivity. If you did that once per month by the sixth month mark you’d be fired. The owner, who is most likely heavily involved in the day to day activities, is going to see the average $100-$300 loss for each error and feel it personally. Remember, this example is only a small service and repair organization. Many administrative jobs can have a larger impact.
Juxtapose this with someone who is a waiter or waitress. Let’s assume that you’re the food server, the number of orders you manage per day is comparable to the number of service calls in the prior example. It also stands to reason that the number of errors is also the same. One wrong order entered in a month is not a big deal. This is because there is a limited number of restaurant managers who are going to micromanage the wait staff to the point where they will know of every single meal where the french fries were on the plate instead of the vegetable medley that the customer actually ordered. On top of this the fix is quick and the cost is close to zero, even if the restaurant policy is to offer a free dessert for an incorrect meal. A desert and a plate of fries that are thrown out every month, or even a few times a day isn’t a big enough deal to get rid of a server with a good attitude that the customers generally like.
The difference here is related to costs. The more the error costs relative to the tolerance of the manager or organization, the more the errors will turn into a challenge for the non detail oriented individual. I use the term tolerance vs. absolute costs because some organizations have very tight tolerances. Going back to food service, I know several chain pizza places who measure, down to the individual slice, how much pepperoni should be on a pizza. If you are non detail oriented when making those pizzas and the food cost number goes up even a few dollars during your shift, you’ll be let go as quick as the HVAC admin, maybe quicker. It wouldn’t matter that your food costs went up because you got the pizza to the customer faster than anyone else on the store team, even if that metric is also being measured.
Going back to buddy, the errors weren’t in costs, they were in potential findings in the audit report. Buddy works in a government program, and if there is one thing that I’ve learned during my tenure in government, it is that there are always much tighter tolerances for adhering to policy vs. organizational service delivery and outcomes. In the private sector if you cut a corner to make the customer happy you are generally considered to have done a good job. In the public sector if you cut a corner to make a customer happy you may have broken a Federal, State, or Local law. Even if it’s an illogical and outdated law, say something like the Jones Act, it can’t be circumvented without huge penalties. Buddy was so focused on serving customers that he simply wasn’t wired to slow down and make sure that every little detail in every report was perfect. Consequently several were missed and that meant buddy got reprimanded formally. This is why Buddy was only kinda good at the job. He really jumped on tasks and helped people, but missed the most important, but least discussed aspect of the job, which was the details.
There are two takeaways. The first is that it’s really important to know the highest priority of the organization you are in. This may not be the stated priority. Organizations are notorious for spouting that the highest priority is customer service or quality of the product. Usually that’s not the case. There is another priority, a higher priority, that’s not stated often because it doesn’t sound good. In the case of the HVAC company the highest priority was not costing the owner money. Everything else was important, but not wasting cash was really the highest priority. If it took an extra day for a part to get delivered because the lower cost vendor was selected vs. meeting the stated goal of offering the fastest customer service, I have a sneaking suspicion that the owner of that company wouldn’t mind it as much as they would the screw up that cost $200 in lost time and productivity. If the highest priority in the government agency is to make sure to follow the rules, there will be much higher tolerances for delays in service delivery, no matter what function of government is being provided to the citizen. This, by the way, is why so many people think government employees are lazy. They aren’t. They are just zero focused on following the rules, which is their highest priority. That takes a ton of time in government organizations who, to compound the situation, oftentimes have antiquated systems in place for service delivery.
The second takeaway is about you, my reader or podcast listener. You must understand your own core competency. If we understand the organization’s core competency, and we understand our own, it’s easy to see if we are round pegs in square holes or if we fit right in. If you’ve been at your job for many years, and on the whole it’s mostly been smooth sailing, the odds are your core competency matches the organizations. If, on the other hand, you are constantly frustrated at work, jump jobs every few years and you dread Monday’s, then these are signs your not aligned to your industry or job category. I concentrated on profitability and detail orientation but prioritization is not related to that. It could be an industry cultural norm. What I mean by this is that it could be something similar to another type of personality trait in relation to an environmental need. If your an introvert in a position or industry where expression is valued, say the arts, then you may be looked at as cold or uncaring and there will be frustration wherever you work.
This is very easy to talk about but this conversation gets much more complicated when we think about the great reset switch. Moving to a new industry invariably means that more often than not you start at the beginning. I have seen this happen to others time and again in my career and I have personally experienced it as well. It’s generally easier to just stick to what you have been doing if it keeps your income at its current level. It’s really hard to move to something you’ll most likely be more aligned to if the income isn’t there. Going back to my two examples, a service coordinator on salary.com averages close to $35,000/year and usually with benefits. The same website cites $13k to 23K for a waiter/waitress job and they almost never have benefits like health care or retirement. A server can make more over time, especially if they move up in the caliber of restaurant and get full time hours, but that takes time. This is a drastic example for illustration purposes, but it does make the point. There is almost always short to mid term financial pain when moving to an environment that’s more aligned to the individual from one that wasn’t. I do believe that there is a high probability for long term gain, but you have to be in a situation that allows you to take one step back financially to take two steps forward.
You can be kinda good at your job, but sometimes that’s just not good enough. At the very least there will be ongoing frustration at the stuff your not good at or that is against your core nature. At the worst, you’ll always be reeling from an environment that never seems to value you and is always trying to punish or eliminate you. If you can bite the financial bullet, then it may be best to hit the great reset switch and move to an aligned industry or job. If it works out you’ll have more good days than bad. If you can’t, then at the very least it’s best to really try to understand the core priority of your industry and do whatever you can to get better at it. Your work will always be a struggle if the core task is not in your nature, but awareness of a problem and engaging a plan to really deal with it is much better than just bitching about it. This is the route I have taken and it’s working so far even with the bad days. Yes, sometimes you can’t just be kinda good at your job and survive long term, but trying is always better than not trying. There is one thing I am absolutely sure of. And it’s that advice isn’t just kinda good, it’s really good!