All Hands on Deck

Sept. 1, 2008
If business is slow, that's when your whole team needs to work together.

We’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, probably will.” But I recently heard of something called Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available.” With gas prices soaring and the economy down, I’ve noticed quite a few shops with much less business than usual. I’ve also seen Parkinson’s Law at work. Body techs and painters seem to be moving more slowly. At one shop estimators have been simply standing around when there are no estimates to write.

I once had a consulting assignment with a highly successful chain of ten shops with extraordinary estimators. I interviewed the estimator at each shop and learned that they were considered the primary salespeople and business generators for the shops. When they weren’t writing estimates, they were on the phone calling prior customers and prospective customers to keep business flowing in.

I think many shop owners underestimate the wider capabilities of their employees.

I think any shop that has estimators standing around or other employees moving slowly can learn from this approach. When everyone with downtime pitches in, business starts coming in.


Twenty-five years ago a young middle manager was sent to shut down an ailing plant in Springfield, Mo., the Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation (SRC), a division of International Harvester.

When he showed up at the plant, he found a totally demoralized work force. Somehow he was able to rally the workers and save the plant. Four years later John P. (“Jack”) Stack negotiated the leveraged buyout of SRC from International Harvester Corp. with his fellow managers. Stack says after the buyout they had an 89-to-one debt-to-equity ratio. As a corporate entity they were nearly comatose. They began with $1 million in working capital, but owed $8 million, and all the assets were pledged.
Four years later Stack had a $50-million company with 475 employees. How did he accomplish this? “The reason is simple,” he says. “To be successful in business you have to be going somewhere, and everyone involved in getting you there has to know where it is. That’s a basic rule, a higher law, but most companies miss it. They miss the fact that you have a much better chance of winning if everyone knows what it takes to win.”


One story Jack Stack tells is particularly revealing. He says, “One of my first big lessons came in about 1972, when we had to ship out 800 tractors to the Soviet Union, and I was in charge of scheduling the parts. At the time there was a severe shortage of the parts we needed, but without those parts the tractors wouldn’t go to Russia, and our department would get killed. We had until November first and this was October already.

“On paper, it couldn’t be done. So I put up a big sign, saying OUR GOAL: 800 TRACTORS, and I explained to my guys exactly what was going on and what was at stake. That was unusual, because Harvester was very secretive. I’d go to meetings, and they would say, ‘Here’s what we have to do, but don’t tell anybody.’ I took the opposite tack.”

Jack goes on to tell how the people responded. He says, “They were amazing. They went into the factory each night and crawled over those tractors and figured out what parts were needed and how many tractors were short of those particular parts. Then they got the parts any way they could. On October 31, we hit 803! It showed me what people could do.

“I saw these guys get hungry. I saw them push and accomplish things they never thought were possible. I saw satisfaction on a daily basis. I thought, ‘My God, if I can get people pumped up, wanting to come to work every day, what an edge that is! That’s what nobody else is doing. Suppose I could run the right numbers, so that a guy wakes up in the morning and says, Man, I feel rotten, but I really want to go in there and see what happened. That’s the whole secret to increasing productivity.’”

Stack says this experience  convinced him that secrecy is nonsense. He decided from then on to tell people everything. And he wrote up his system in a book called The Great Game of Business (Doubleday Business, 1994).


Many of my body shop clients have been immigrants, often coming from places where communicating too much could get you killed. I have found most of them still practice secrecy—possibly just out of habit—and that secrecy keeps most of the employees unaware of the condition of the shop and what is needed to allow it survive. I believe Jack Stack has it right. When the building is burning down, it’s everyone’s job to grab a bucket and put out the fire.

I think many shop owners underestimate the wider capabilities of their employees. They might be amazed to discover how creative their people can be when it seems that business will get so slow they may be laid off. I can’t see that there’s anything to lose by involving all of them in solving the problem—and maybe a whole lot to gain!

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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