In 1972, Disney released a slapstick live-action comedy called “Snowball Express.” In the tradition of “Herbie the Love Bug” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” it was an absurd and silly plot that allowed for the kind of physical and in-your-face comedy that kids love.
The basic story is this: a guy who knows nothing about skiing or hotels, inherits an aging ski resort. He uproots his family and moves them to his newly acquired property. Madcap antics ensue and it is a fun ride for everyone.
Apart from the comedy, there is a scene in the movie that I will never forget. One evening the protagonist is trying to figure out how to get an old “Donkey Engine” half way up the mountain to be used as a rope tow for skiers. He knows that the Donkey Engine is plenty strong enough to pull the skiers up the mountain, but it is so large that none of the other equipment at the resort is strong enough to drag it up the mountain.
One evening, he is sitting at a table with one of his employees trying to solve this pressing problem. His young son, on his way to bed, tries to get his dad’s attention.
He is dismissed with a, “Daddy is busy, go to bed and I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Before heading up to bed the boy writes down what he had to say and leaves the paper on the table in front of his dad. Hours later, when the dad has all but given up on the problem, he finally looks at the note and is awestruck with both the simplicity and brilliance of what his young son had written. The note said, “If the Donkey Engine is so strong, why can’t it drag itself up the mountain?”
The father was so convinced that only he could solve the problem, that even when an answer was standing right in front of him, several hours passed before he even took a moment to look at it.
There is a word for this approach to the world – hubris. According to Wikipedia:
Years ago I had my own run-in with hubris. From 2004 to 2009 I was the Director of Sales & Marketing for a manufacturing company. For the first four and a half years of my tenure there, the company was housed in a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, but in March 2009, the company moved into a new facility that measured 80,000 sq. ft. The building was not new, but instead a renovated slice of a closed auto parts factory that collectively was nearly one million square feet.
Moving a manufacturing facility is both complex and expensive. The planning and execution of the move took nearly a year, but when the time finally came, things went pretty smoothly.
At noon on a Friday, we shut off the machines, phones and computers and by Monday at 9:00am, we were open for business in the new building.
Apart from the complexity, cost is always an issue when making such a move. To make it happen we had to work with dozens of contractors, some chosen by our new landlord and others selected by my coworkers and company leaders.
As we ran down the lists of “must haves” and “like-to-haves” with each contractor, choices and trade offs had to be made. For example, we decided to keep our existing phone system, but we opted to upgrade some parts giving us an improved digital connection and more direct dial numbers.
As the telecom contractor got underway, he presented us with an unexpected problem. It turned out that the new equipment we had chosen was no longer compatible with our overhead paging system and to correct the problem we would need to purchase a $1,200 adapter. Furthermore, the cost of moving the overhead speakers had been left out of the quote. The owners of the company, already up to their ears in additional expenses, decided that the cost was not worth it.
In the old building, whenever you needed to find someone in the 45,000 sq. ft. space, you simply picked up any phone, pressed the “PAGE” button, waited for the beep and then spoke your request into the receiver. The system would broadcast your page through the speaker of every phone in the building plus dozens of amplified overhead speakers on the factory floor and in the warehouse. The system worked well and for the most part when you paged someone, they heard you.
Once we were in the new, 80,000 sq. ft. building, the paging system only worked through the phones. If the person you were paging was in the office part of the building they would probably hear you, but on factory floor and in the warehouse it was hopeless – the paging system simply didn’t work. Just for perspective, an NFL football field is just over 57,000 sq. ft.
Making matters worse, the building was long and skinny with the offices in the front. So, if I had a customer on the phone and I needed information from someone in shipping and receiving at the clear other end of the building, I had no hope of getting their attention unless they were right next to the phone – which was pretty much never. I would have to tell my customer I would call them back and then begin the five-minute walk back to the loading docks.
The process kept me in good shape, but I wasted a great deal of time walking information back and forth that could have just as easily traveled at the speed of sound.
One day as I was making one of my ten-minute round trips across the building, I noticed that there were dozens of old paging speakers hanging from girders of the 50 ft. high ceiling. I hadn’t noticed them at first because the ceiling had been painted and they had painted everything, including the speakers. Upon closer inspection I determined that the entire factory floor and warehouse were wired for sound.
Based on how old they were, it was clear the speakers had been part of the old auto parts factory and since they weren’t in the way, nobody had bothered to remove them during the renovation.
I got back to my office, grabbed a piece of paper and started diagramming.
The paging amplifier we used in the old building was unplugged and sitting on a shelf. The problem was that with our upgraded phone system, we lacked a bridge from the digital phones to the analog signal needed to drive the amplifier and in turn the ceiling speakers.
As I sat there scratching my head, a page came over my phone and with it a light bulb ignited above my head.
Later that afternoon, we had a management team meeting and at the end when new business could be brought up I mentioned that I thought I had figured out a way to get overhead paging back without spending the $1,200 on the adapter.
Without asking for more details, the owner of the company simply stated, “you think you know better than the professionals? Until we have the money for the right part, you are all just going to have to suck it up.”
I attempted to explain that I had in fact worked in the professional audio business for five years, and in a way I did in fact know as much as the “professionals,” at least on this small task. The topic was dismissed and the meeting ended before I was able to explain that my idea required only $12 in parts from Radio Shack and the use of a broken phone.
Leaving that meeting I knew how that little kid in “Snowball Express” must have felt, but I wasn’t about to let hubris get in my way. I marched over to the office of our IT guy and asked him if he had any old phones that were broken in some way, but on which the speakerphone still worked. He pointed to a shelf with several phones on it and said, “Take your pick.”
On my way home that night I stopped at Radio Shack and purchased a 1/8” audio jack and a headphone extension cable. Total cost, $11.87.
The revelation I had at my desk was this; the phone on my desk was in fact doing what the contractor claimed we needed a $1,200 adapter for. Every time a page came over the system, each phone was converting the digital signal to analog before sending it to the speaker.
So, I took the broken phone apart and wired the audio jack in parallel with the speaker wires. I then drilled a small hole in the side of the phone, mounted the jack and put the phone back together. I plugged the headphone cable into the jack and after stripping the wires at the other end, connected it up to the paging amplifier.
The next day I asked the building maintenance guy if he could use the service lift to pull some of the speaker wires in the ceiling down to the floor level. This only took a few minutes. Once I had the speaker wires connected to the output of the amplifier the moment of truth had come. I walked over to one of the phones on the factory floor, pressed “PAGE” and said, “Testing, testing, this is a test.”
Before the first word had escaped my lips I heard my own voice boom off the ceiling with such volume that nearly everyone stopped what they were doing and looked straight up.
After some minor adjustments and a little wiring, the system was in place and working beautifully. Although the battle was won, the war on hubris was not to be as triumphant.
I guess the owner wasn’t too pleased that I ignored his directive to stand down, because he never acknowledged that the overhead paging system had been fixed and he never bothered to say thank you. In a final act of protest, I never submitted my Radio Shack receipt for reimbursement.
Six months later I chose to leave that company for several reasons, but the hubris-driven lack of appreciation was certainly a factor.
A few years after my departure, the company was sold. Earlier this year I visited the company on business, and in the middle of my meeting in I heard a page scream out across the building – I had no choice but to smile knowing that the old owner was gone but my $12 fix remained.
Titles, formal degrees and initials that follow a person’s name are all well and good, but they are not the only source of fresh ideas and solutions to problems. Keep your mind open to any and all sources of good things. Just because you have more experience and you’re the boss, leave your ego at home and take full advantage of all the resources around you.
In my book The Penny Collector, there is a story called “Say Thank You To Everyone.” Accepting and implementing good ideas (no matter the source) is only half the equation. Recognizing and encouraging more of the same will have a multiplicative effect, and it is the difference between being a boss and being a leader.
“Paging Mr. Hubris, paging Mr. Hubris – please leave the building, you are not welcome here.”
Copyright © 2018 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved – Paging Mr. Hubris