Why Everyone Should Work In A Fish Factory

Ask my wife Andrea about her first summer during university and she’ll tell you of her experience, working in a fish factory. Whilst many of the other kids were heading home for heady summer days lounging around or going travelling for three months, Andrea decided to head to the local fish factory to work for eight hours a day.

Her task? Placing a piece of paper in the bottom of each polystyrene tray which passed by her.

That was her job. Honestly. Stand at the conveyor belt, take a piece of paper, put it in the bottom of the tray, do the next one, and the next one and the next one. From 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Tray, after tray, after tray.

Andrea wasn’t the only student to start work at the factory that summer, but she was the only one to finish. Of all the students who turned up looking to earn money, she was the only one who saw it through to the end as all of the others abandoned it along the way.

Everyone had their part to play in the factory: from the person who placed the tray on the belt, to the one who counted out the prawns; to the person who placed the paper in the bottom of the tray, to the one who actually put the prawns in the tray; the person who covered the tray with cellophane, to the one who placed the label on and finally, the person who put them in the box.

Yep, pretty remarkable stuff. And one thing’s for sure – there was no uncertainty about roles and responsibilities. Everyone was crystal clear about what the next person did and moreover, each of them was interchangeable within the team. They could move around and do each other’s jobs at a moment’s notice.

Yet this monotony didn’t stifle the sense of team, and on her last day, all of the people she’d worked with over the last three months clubbed together to buy her some chocolates to say ‘thank you’ for her contribution to the team.

My summers, and many of my friends, were spent working in McDonald’s. Comparatively, we had it easy as there was relatively more variance in the tasks. We got to stand over the grill and the toaster and the dressing station, making Big Macs and Cheeseburgers and Quarter Pounders – eating a fair few along the way as well!

What is truly amazing about McDonald’s are the processes which are employed. There’s a process for everything. There’s one for opening the restaurant in the morning, one for cooking the meat, toasting the buns, dressing the buns, frying the chicken or the fish or the fries. There’s a process for cleaning the equipment and utensils, a process for training, one for closing the store at night – there’s even a process to monitor the processes! There really is nothing quite like it.

But these processes are essential. It’s why they can staff their stores with all manner of experience of people and why the customer experience you get in one is the same as that which you get in the next. And the manner in which they train, measure and assess is extremely rigorous as consistency, reliability and success all hinge on these processes.

So what can we learn from these factories?

The power of process in scaling

If you want to scale a business so that it performs reliably as it grows and with less manual input, then well governed and compliant processes are critical. The world is littered with examples of managers and owners still too involved in day-to-day activity which is, in part, due to a lack of documented process. In addition, having sound and compliant processes in place will increase the value of any business due to the associated ability to scale.

The power of role clarity

Look at many employee engagement surveys and one of the top three issues is likely to be role clarity – or lack of it. It’s one of the biggest drivers of dissatisfaction out there. In the main, people like to have boundaries. They like to know where my role starts and where yours ends. And whilst it can’t always be black and white and whilst there will always be a certain amount of ambiguity, the greater the role clarity, the greater the employee satisfaction.

The power of persistence

Some jobs are tough. Some are a hell of a lot tougher than others. But regardless of the role, recruiting for persistence is key. Put it another way, when the task is to place a piece of paper in the bottom of a tray, then the recruitment and training cost is minimal. When the task is to learn how to place an intra-aortic balloon and to teach the cardiologist how to do so, then the recruitment and training costs increase exponentially. However, find someone who’s willing to tough out the former and it’s a decent indicator that they’ll not leave the latter due to lack of drive or determination.

The power of focus and practice

When a skill can become an unconscious-competence – when it’s done right every time without thinking through each step, then the individual can enter a state of flow where performance is optimised. This ability comes through focus and practice. So what may be monotony for one person, may be critical practice and finessing for the next.

The power of development

More sales people should spend time as marketers. More marketers as sales people. I’ll keep going and say that those who are inclined to do so and are in Ops, IT, R&D, HR or Finance should be looking at sales and marketing roles – and vice versa. Much like changing roles around the conveyor belt, our organisations would be far richer places and our leaders far more rounded if there was more cross-functional development.

The power of culture

The people in the team aren’t defined by the job they do, more their jobs and the organisation will be defined by them. And so culture is key. In many ways, get that right and nothing else matters. Foster a culture of team and success will follow.

The power of creativity

Finally, and regardless of role or work environment, everyone still has the opportunity to make a difference; to find a new way of doing things or a better way of doing things. A way that could save time or money or be the next big thing for their organisation. Just as Jim Delligatti did when he created the ‘Aristocrat’ as a way to increase sales in his burger restaurants; which later went on to be known as the ‘Big Mac’.

Both the metaphorical and literal factories have come in for some tough press in recent years, as the reality of the new economy takes hold and teaches us that success in the information age is not one that is built on or sustainable with a ‘factory’ mindset or culture. That what the world needs are Linchpins and people willing to stand out and make a difference. That the factory mindset neither fosters nor encourages this approach.

And that’s fair and true and relevant when it comes to attitude and mindset, both of people owning and running businesses and those working in them. Growth can’t come from minimum wage, minimum ability and minimum opportunity.

But the factory still provides some really important lessons and critical success factors for business which, if adhered to, can allow growth and development and success – and are the reasons why everyone should work in a fish factory at some point.

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