Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part IV)

(Part I, Part II, Part III)

Lee, the Purchaser
The art supply store hired me as a shipping/receiving clerk, which was mostly checking in the supplies as they came off the truck to make sure that Koh-i-noor had sent us the number of pens they said they did and the number of pens we had actually ordered. The store catered to the business community who needed foam board for presentations and to students who needed specific pads of paper for their art classes. In addition to clerks, commercial inside sales people, and a shipping/receiving clerk who was also responsible for custodial duties, small computer administration, and miscellaneous electrical repairs, the store had a dedicated purchaser, an employee whose full-time endeavor was to map the sales of individual products and to order enough to meet anticipated demand. Her name was Lee.

In the early 1990s, personal computer usage was in its infancy, and the store’s inventory was maintained on a minicomputer with thin client terminals. Lee printed out reams of product lists to use as she checked the back stock and the items on the shelf to make her predictions, which were more astrological than based on past sales.

In the late summer, as the store was preparing for the back-to-school rush that produced much of the annual sales, a truck arrived with pallets of paper products, from notepads to 4’ by 6’ boxes of heavy cardstock. The receiving room of the store could handle about 3 pallets of product comfortably. This particular load comprised 14 pallets, including two double-sized pallets containing bins of foam board. The truck driver mercifully left his trailer at the exterior loading dock for a half hour lunch to give the receiving clerk the chance to restack and rearrange pallets to fit six pallets uncomfortably into the warehouse.

“Why so many?” Lee asked, incredulous. She carried a printout of the expected order. The receiving clerk took the papers from her and pointed out how the four on this line translated into so many cubic feet, how the ten on this line translated to so many more cubic feet, and so on. The order matched the delivery.

Fairly often, we worry that someone has forgotten to take the customer into account when making plans or acting. However, Lee, working with numbers in the abstract and little ticks on lines on sheets of paper, became divorced from the realities of the product. The concrete products that filled the warehouse and many backaching hours for the receiving clerk as he somehow fit these products into slots and shelves to make the warehouse navigable.

Lee taught me to remember the customer and the product. In too many instances, particularly in the software industry, the customer-facing professionals keep the customers too much in mind and have little understanding of the technologies of the product or even the things for which the customers will use the software. Instead, their focus remains on pleasing the people who place the orders, and they might find themselves promising more than their teams can deliver. Much like Lee might.

(Part V)

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