Enterprise Excellence

A worn-out office chair or the Grand Canyon, a consultant and coffee

“Go see, ask why, show respect”
Nathalie Vermassen

How it all began… quite innocently in fact. It was a question of simple planning for me, the final straw for him. His eyes turned into bullets when I told him (quite professionally, I thought myself) that he was expected in the heart of Limburg for a project in 2 weeks time. He caught me in his evil stare like an expert sniper.

It just couldn’t carry on like that. The Grand Canyon was small compared to the rift between Planning and ‘the consultancy field’. Me with my Stratego-style planning board, him with a whole collection of assignments and projects and a bulging agenda filled with wall-to wall meetings. And when he blows his top, then the insults follow quickly, believe me. “That I didn’t understand his job, that I should put myself in his place for once, that I should charge about from pillar to post instead of him and that he would sit back in my ‘worn-out’ office chair and I could have a turn sitting in his ‘worn-out’ car seat… … if I dared!!” You don’t need to say that kind of thing to me twice… and the adventure would be mutual, although he wasn’t yet aware of that, my figurative swords were crossed.

So I was ready for it! One Friday morning I stood at his door (my crusade couldn’t start soon enough) and after he had given his daughter a quick kiss goodbye I climbed aboard next to him, into his car (which was surprisingly clean, so my preconception appeared to be unjustified, 1-0 for him).

The satnav was already pre-programmed with our destination (efficiency, personal work organisation, he had clearly understood it – feather in my cap for that module of our Internal Academy, 1-1) and a quick traffic check reassured us that no alternative route needed to be sought and thus no alternative baker either (early morning departures leaving little time for breakfast).

We arrived at the clients in plenty of time, and after my brief introduction as a spectator he got started. Everything was prepared down to the last detail. Not a single trace of the stress that had been present before that busy day could be sensed during the meeting, not one little bit. Professional, correct, and in the right tone of voice he entertained and challenged those present for a good 2 hours. Now and again I saw him shift on his chair (causing me to miss my own velvety office chair) and while my tongue felt dry as a bone (despite not having said anything) he was so focused he hardly paused to sip his glass of water.

After the meeting we hurtled back in the direction of the car (he clearly had no sympathy with my high heels) and headed off in the direction of the second pre-programmed address, just under an hour in a totally different direction. To avoid the embarrassment of rumbling tummies, time should and would be made for a quick lunch… over our PCs, you can’t be serious?!… oh, you do mean it!! The next meeting needed preparation (time ran out for that yesterday evening), a colleague still needed briefing, and the preparation made by the customer still had to be reviewed. At this point I need to confirm that a salad sandwiched between 2 PCs is not particularly tasty, but it fills a hole and keeps us going for the next 2 hours. Just like that coffee, which was an absolute must. This was an important meeting, we needed to be on our toes.

How true his words turned out to be… what a tempo during the meeting. He kept tight control of the agenda, he asked questions, listened, took notes (long live OneNote) and as far as I could see he did it all simultaneously on the PC, which was open on his lap. After 3 extremely intense not to mention extremely enriching hours (I learnt soooo much) we shake hands with the man opposite, who, like us, can start the weekend with a feeling of satisfaction. The outcome of this meeting allows us to move forward, there was work to be done and I saw his fingers itching to get started right away.

Time for the return journey (by the end of which we would have driven in a nice triangle around Belgium) and sadly the traffic warnings were in full force. I quickly worked out that if things didn’t go too badly we’d only be back at his house by around 7pm (ok, a quick call to the neighbours to say I’d be arriving a little later for drinks). My whole body yearned for coffee and, should it not be prohibited in our contract, I could have hugged him when he suggested another one ‘for the road’. His day was done, it had been a good one, and most of all it had been quite enough after a whole week of running around. The seats in our company cars (I thank the Lord for the day we decided to go for good quality cars) felt like a soft mattress, and I do believe I even dozed off, just for a moment.

Back in my own car again I reviewed my day, which was actually his day. I had been nothing more than a spectator, joining in the rat race that he, and our other consultants, ran several times per week, and in a few just-a-bit-too-hectic moments, which they also actually enjoy (his words, which I was allowed to quote). The varied job content, all the different people they meet up with, day in day out. Also, when it’s all happening, I’ve seen how he manages to keep going, remaining professional at all times, whatever the circumstances. I have experienced how he inspires the customer, with his insights, good preparation, each time considering the added value for the client. I have seen how he puts his work first, how he gets himself organised, at work and at home, with deadly efficiency.

And I… I have learnt, in the way that Jim Womack describes so beautifully in “Gemba Walks” (or “proceswandelingen” for fans of the Dutch genre). Jim Womack writes about “go see, ask why, show respect”. Instead of making decisions behind your desk (and judgements if you’re not careful) get out for a day to where it’s all really happening. It’s the only way to experience what someone else is trying to tell you, for insights to be built, and upon that foundation of respect you can continue building, the trust, the understanding, the experience. My scoreboard was long put to one side, my swords were no longer crossed. I hope the same applies to him when I speak to him shortly about how I enjoyed seeing him in action and how much my horizons were widened and how I will be delighted to first do the calculation before involving him in a project in the heart of Limburg again… simply because he is good, I saw it with my own eyes, so in fact he only has himself to blame, ha!

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Nathalie Vermassen