On the job, we have the responsibility to ensure that the people working for us understand what it is that we want. Otherwise, what was the purpose of them working for us in the first place?
Clarity of scope, well-defined targets – this is something that is reiterated over and over again - both are critically necessary in order to achieve success.
Well, this is a story where it seems that lines got crossed in conveying information from one party to the next. It is a common story conveyed through a personal experience, perhaps not so complex to require a lot of thought, but it really goes to show how much attention we really need to place on clarity at the beginning, and in attaining agreement or commitments to achieving an aligned view of the outcomes.
A few weeks ago, I realized that there was dripping water in the mechanical room of my house. An unpleasant surprise, especially given some of the damage that had already occurred.
But, once discovered, I easily sourced the problem, took pictures of the area, and recorded information about the parts requiring replacement. I also isolated the problem and shut off its source of water, to stop the dripping and reduce the additional damage it might do.
Realistically, I knew this was something I could fix on my own, but I didn’t have time to go out, find the parts, and then do the repair at the time. So, I did the next best thing – I called a plumber.
Now, I’m going to back up a minute to give you a little context around my knowledge of the situation.
I grew up in a plumbing household – my grandfather was one, my dad is one, and my brother is also now one. Our family, starting with my grandparents, owned a plumbing business and storefront, changing size and locations over the years, and it was a world I grew up in.
You’ve heard how kids “absorb everything”, even when you don’t think they are listening?
It’s very true – when learning about hydraulics in engineering, it was like déjà vu for me. I clearly recalled the sound of my dad talking himself through the numerous calculations he did while designing pump systems when I was a child – the very details we learned through that course.
But much earlier than that, as a teen, I helped run the store – helping customers determine the source of their problem and find the solutions they required, doing small repairs in-store, managing inventories and procurement, training others to do the same, and sometimes going out in the field with my dad or his employees to provide a helping hand.
So, when I say I could fix this on my own, I really could. I knew the parts would be readily available, and that they were fairly standard in size and shape, even amongst various suppliers, as they were parts that commonly required replacement. And I also had a good understanding of what a repair like this should cost me (inflation considered), and the time it might take.
I even later verified all this with my mom and brother, since it has been some time since I’ve been involved with the business. But that is getting ahead of the story…
Setting the Scope
When I spoke to the person scheduling the appointments, I told them everything that I knew about the problem, and I attempted to provide the information I had about the parts. I mentioned what the parts were, and I suggested I could put it all in an email, or talk to the plumber before they came, so they would be well prepared when they arrived. (I knew that their business was located on the opposite end of town and getting parts would easily add another hour of time to the job.)
However, while assuring me that the plumber would have typical parts on hand (which, as mentioned, I knew these were), and could easily order others while they were on site, she simply offered a block of time to book, and continued to explain that there would be a minimum charge for the service call.
Having been that person on the other end of the call before, and given that she didn’t ask me to repeat anything I had mentioned, I resigned myself to the likeliness that she did not record any of the information I had provided (an assumption, of course). But I did hope that she would at least pass on my request for the plumber to call me before coming.
I also was well versed in the practices of a minimum charge for service calls, so accepted what she offered, and then waited for a call from the plumber – a call which never came until he had arrived in front of my house.
When Planning and Execution Collide
In response-service situations like these, it is the job of the specialist to come in, quickly assess the situation, come up with a plan, determine his or her needs, grab the supplies, and then rapidly execute to resolve the problem. There are no pre-execution stages of planning, ordering supplies and preparing for the work – these steps all collide into the shortened period of time during the site visit.
So, when the plumber arrived, I expected to lead him to the mechanical room, point the few things out that I already knew, and let him get to work. To note, the room is a nightmare in its layout, with too many things crammed into a very small space, so we’ve found that explaining a couple of things has always helped other service folks in the past.
Instead, he proceeded to spend the first 15 minutes or so telling me all about his qualifications and the company – before even taking his boots off at the door. He also explained that he would take a look at the problem, give me a full quote, and confirm my agreement for the services before proceeding.
This sounded fair, and with my agreement, he finally came in.
Initiating the “Contract”
I led him downstairs to the mechanical room, where immediately he started to look everything over in the space, making remarks about the age of my hot water tanks, and other systems in the room. He started asking questions about previous inspections, the timing and frequency, and about other non-relevant things.
And although I interrupted to reiterate and point out the problem that I had asked him to come fix, and told him what I knew about it, he continued to go through his checklist. He then told me that he would come get me if he needed to ask anything else, and to go over his quote.
So, knowing that a specialist would know more than I, regardless of my history, I went back to the work I needed to do, reminding myself that this was why I called a plumber in!
Literally, I will say that this plumber ended up being in my house for 2.5 hours, and only towards the end of that did I discover that he had spent nearly all of this time looking many things over, and calculating quotes for things I did not ask him to come and inspect.
With that said, I am the one who allowed him this time, being a bit distracted with my own tasks, and only checking periodically if he needed anything. In fact, a couple of the times when I did attempt to check in, he was on the phone with his office, and I assumed he was getting prices or ordering parts so that he could proceed.
I could not be more wrong.
When he came to talk with me, he reviewed a full safety checklist he had filled in, and recommendations he had for upgrades and replacements of equipment that he felt were aged, and “on borrowed time”. These were items he clearly stated were much more critical than my problem at hand, brushing off the need to do the original repair requested.
He also asked me to sign his inspection list, to ensure he could say that I was aware of everything he had found. (I don’t know if this is now a requirement, but can see that it might be a way for such businesses to protect themselves against potential claims by those looking to blame a visiting plumber for malpractice.)
Finally, after providing quotes for the many recommendations he had – some in the tens of thousands of dollars – he finally gave me several options for replacing the one part I had asked him to come replace.
Money for Nothing
Every single option offered for repairing the leaky valve involved more parts and upgrades than the next, all were severely over-priced, and all were adding to (not including) the cost of the minimum service charge for his time already spent in my home. (Remember my awareness around this goes back to my own experiences, and the follow-up I mentioned).
So, while I appreciated a bit of warning about aging systems (my house is only 10 years old), I was very upset that a professional, and business backing him, was attempting to take advantage of a situation where many uninformed people would otherwise know no difference.
I paid him for the minimum service charge and he left. And I never asked him to return.
2.5 hours without fixing anything…wasted time…money for nothing.
The issues hidden within this story comes down to expectations and commitments. And perhaps, most importantly, a lack of agreement on the two – before the work commenced, before he even entered my home.
By agreeing to the minimum service charge at the time of booking, I had accepted the unwritten terms of the company – which, as later discovered, was to come and inspect all the potential problems in my house and give me outrageous quotes for repairs and future potential issues that I had not requested.
By not asking for clarification, or confirming the terms with either the initial scheduler of the service call, or the plumber upon arrival, I had agreed to pay a minimum service charge for a quote only. Not to actually fix anything, regardless of whether that would have added labour charges for that day or not.
I had assumed, wrongly, that the terms and purposes for a minimum service charge were the same as had been my previous experience.
This was, to cover the cost of time spent travelling to and from the site in question, and to cover the efforts of going to homes where repairs might take only a few minutes, but prevent these specialists from going to much larger, higher paying jobs.
My experience had been that, should a job take less than a specified period of time, you pay the minimum charge. Should the job take longer than the minimum charge would cover, you pay for the total time at site – not an additional labour charge for total time on top of the minimum. And cost of parts was always a separate entity, which is to be expected.
Although this was a tiny project in comparison to other projects I have been involved with, this was a very valuable lesson.
Never rely on assumptions when you have the opportunity to clearly validate them.
Never proceed with work without fully understanding and gaining agreement upon the expected outcomes.
And when in doubt during execution, ask questions to ensure that what is happening, is aligned with the agreed-to targets.
Unfortunately, with lessons now learned, I still have a leaky valve to repair.
I guess it’s time to get my hands dirty…
This article was originally published on projectmanagement.com on February 22, 2017.