By Bill Fotsch
Years ago, Great Game of Business author Jack Stack told me, “Financials are just stories about people.” I think he is right. But I notice that the financial stories that get told most often are pretty awful. We hear about Ken Lay and the fraud he and his team committed at Enron. We hear about Bernie Madoff and his family’s pyramid scheme.
So let me tell you a different kind of story—a story more like I think Jack meant. I was working with a small company that rented formal wear from several locations in various midwestern states. We had created a scoreboard that highlighted key financial numbers, so that the employees could track the figures and help move them in the right direction.
At one week’s meeting I looked at the scoreboard and noticed the company was doing really well on laundry and linen costs. I wanted to emphasize that the savings would shoot right down to the bottom line, generating incremental profits. So I asked who was responsible for laundry and linen.
A shy woman raised her hand. I learned later that she was Mexican-American and was wholly unaccustomed to speaking up in this context. Her name was Maria.
So I said, “Well, Maria, who knows more about laundry and linen than you do?” Despite her uncertainty about speaking up, she managed to say, “Well, I know I know more about it than Bob.”
Now, Bob is the manager of the place—so everybody breaks out laughing. And I said, “That’s great, but how do you know that you know more than Bob?”
“Bob used to order the laundry and linen supplies,” she explained. “And Michael—the guy who sold us the supplies, Bob didn’t have a lot of time to spend on that, and Michael was selling him stuff. We ended up with a lot of things that we really didn’t need. But now that I’m responsible for that, I make sure that we only buy what we need.”
Looking at the scoreboard, I said, “Let’s see, last month, that yielded $2,000 of saved costs. And that $2000 goes right to the bottom line, doesn’t it?” She said, yeah, I guess it does. Then I said, who here is better off as a function of Maria’s efforts to do laundry and linen? Everybody applauded, because everybody was better off. Their bonuses were tied to incremental profits.
At the next meeting that day, I ran through the same thing. Maria wasn’t there. But afterwards, someone said that Maria wanted to talk to me.
She said, “You talked to the other teams about the $2,000 in laundry and linen savings, didn’t you?”
I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I did. Just now. How do you even know that?”
She said, “Well, a number of people came up to me and kind of congratulated me on what a good job I was doing. And see, what I wanted to tell you is how important that was – because, you know, when they asked me to become a supervisor for laundry and linen, I wasn’t really sure I could do that. I don’t have a lot of background, education or anything like that—but, you know, I actually do know how to run laundry and linen.”
I just gave her a hug. And I said, “The only thing that seems weird to me, Maria, is that you are thanking me. I should thank you—because this is what it’s all about.”
As Jack said, the financials are really just stories about people. And it’s stories like Maria’s that are the ones worth telling.