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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Work and learn - improving one's business practices is never too late

I spent a good part of my career in the technology project world. While in the middle of a major implementation, it turned out that the equipment that was needed for the development environment (to be in place four weeks later) had not been ordered yet (and the delivery time was 6 weeks - you do the math). This was a month after a meeting, where everyone thought all the questions about equipment had been resolved. Apparently, the group responsible for the ordering needed a detailed equipment specifications list with the sign off from all major project participants. However, that group didn't speak up that they needed the spec list, and nobody thought to ask them whether they needed anything to proceed with the order. As a result, the project is now at a serious risk of not having the development environment ready in time to start Systems Integration and User Acceptance Testing. That means that testing may need to be cut short, and we all know what happens to systems that haven't been properly tested.

Lesson number one: never assume anything! It's better to acquire a reputation for annoying people with repeated question as to whether everyone agrees on a decision or whether anyone needs anything before next steps can be taken, rather than put your work in jeopardy later. During my tenure in the technology world, I have acquired the nickname "pit bull" - precisely because I refused to let people out of the room or off the phone until everyone had a very clear idea what was agreed upon and who was responsible for doing what next. It didn't make me very popular, but it certainly helped me get the job done. This principle applies to other areas of business and even to your personal life. It works very well, whether you are placing an urgent order for 500 glossy spiral-bound brochures at Kinko's or whether you are planning a party at your house with your spouse or significant other. Don't assume that the guy at Kinko's knows that your brochures are supposed to be glossy and spiral-bound and that you need them in 2 hours. Don't assume that your spouse is going to read your mind and know to buy five packs of rolls for the party. Don't assume anything.

Have you ever had a situation when you had, say, an issue with your transmission and you took your car to a shop to get fixed, but their "transmission specialist" wasn't available that day, so you had to figure out when you could take more time off from work to bring your car back, once the said specialist was finally available? I hate that. I hate the concept of an "expert". Yes, of course, there will always be people who know more about certain things than most other people do. However, I don't understand organizations that know they only have one person who is well-versed in a specific subject, and if that one person is not available to share pearls of his or her wisdom with others, the others are pretty much screwed.

Lesson number two: get rid of the experts. No, I am not advocating shooting anyone who knows more about something than others do. Rather, if you are running an organization (or a household), encourage all of your people (or family members) to educate themselves in a variety of subjects, so that they could easily step in for each other when necessary. Again, this works equally well inside and outside of a business. Your transmission problem may be as simple as needing to change transmission fluid - that should not require a specialist. Anyone at a car maintenance and repair shop should be able to do the tranny flush. Don't be the only person in your house who knows how to change batteries and light bulbs, reset electronic clocks, hang pictures on the wall and plunge the toilet - teach your children and spouse how to do that (back to lesson number one - don't assume anything and make sure they know the safety rules). Starting from about third grade, I frequently had to be at home by myself after school. So, my parents taught me how to warm up the food they prepared for me in advance, so that I wouldn't starve to death sitting next to a full refrigerator. I was nine or ten years old at the time, and we had a very old gas stove and an ancient refrigerator. However, with proper tutoring, I managed to keep myself fed without blowing up the house or locking myself in the fridge. It can be done.

If you are working in an environment that fosters the "expert" culture, make it your job to learn as many things as you can. Think of all the times your computer froze up, and you spent 30 minutes on the phone with tech support, when all you needed to do was push the restart button or the proverbial "Ctrl+Alt+Delete".

Lesson number three: educate yourself. When you are on the phone with tech support, keep a record of the problems that can be fixed by simply rebooting your computer. When you have an electrician over, have him show you how to reset your breakers in case one of your circuits overloads and kicks out one of the breakers (believe it or not, some people don't even know where their breaker board is). I don't care if it's your life's principle never to read instructions to anything - you'd be surprised how much information you can find in the instructions booklets for various devices and in the help files for various software applications. Learn to search your resources for information you need, figure out how keywords work when you are looking for something in the help files or on the net, make time for this - it will save you time later. Not to mention the fact that having the breadth and depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects makes you a more valuable resource to your employers. I don't know about you, but I would rather have the bosses fighting for me, rather than clawing my way toward a coveted position from a crowd of other candidates.

Again, making self-education a lifelong habit works well outside of work. Imagine how impressed your kids would be, when they discover you can give them more information about the dinosaurs for their science project than the local library can. And does your spouse know that you can make pie crust from scratch without a recipe?

Above all, use common sense. Look at your successes and write down what made them successes. Examine bottlenecks in your current processes and figure out what makes them bottlenecks and how to eliminate the root causes. Always remember: your success is your business - and nobody else's - so, make it truly yours.

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