That First-Day Feeling

"What if today was your first day on the job and you could see things the way you saw them then?"

Think for a moment about how people look and feel on the first day of a new job. They're excited and nervous and unusually chatty, or unusually quiet. They haven't made friends yet, and don't know exactly who they'll end up working with, so they are extra polite to everyone they meet.

Every conversation, every meeting is a learning experience. From finding out where the coffee machine is—and whether the coffee is worth drinking—to how the telephone system works. Such days are as memorable as the first day at a new school back when we were kids, when we worried about being able to find the bathroom.

If you've recently started a new job at a new company you know exactly how it feels. You're excited and a bit anxious. Walking into the building on that first day you have some notion of what you will be doing and what some of the challenges will be, but you don't feel the real weight of responsibility. You probably have some goals that you hope to accomplish in the first few months, but you don't know what the biggest barriers will be, or the extent of the problems you've inherited.

One thing is clear, as an operations manager your mandate is to improve processes, streamline material and information flow, and generally make things run more efficiently and cost effectively. To do this requires change. Such objectives require changes in strategy, they require changes in technology, they require changes in processes, which means people have to do things differently. And we all know nobody really likes to change how they do things. With one exception.

People will embrace change when they have a strong motivation to change. Those first few days in a new position are a magical time when we live in a state of flux. Just as we're trying to find the quickest route to get to work in the morning, we're trying to figure out the current situation and where we can make an impact. We're highly motivated because we have to work to earn money to support our lifestyles and our families, but also because we want to be successful in our new positions, and show that we are the right man or woman for the job.

During those first few days and weeks, we naturally ask a lot of questions about how things are done, and why they are done a certain way. Seeing what seems like an extra step or an errorprone process, the frequent response to our questions is "Because that's the way we've always done it."

Over time the first-day feeling fades. The basic questions have been asked and answered. Routine begins to take over, and the mental roadblocks go up. For this reason, instead of using exit interviews to gauge and improve the work environment, perhaps companies should do "entrance" interviews with new hires after they've been around for a few days to uncover opportunities for improvement before people have become too inured to the way things are.

As a journalist, part of my job is to play dumb—insert snide comment here—and ask a lot of questions, even if I think I might know the answers. Because when I'm surprised, or hear an angle I've never heard before, that's when I know there's a story.

The better managers I've known are always asking questions. The leader of the material planning and logistics activity for one of big automakers once told to me that during his first three months on the job, he did little more than travel to each of the organization's facilities and customer locations and listen to what people at all levels had to say. How else, he asked, would he be able to understand what the real issues were?

I don't expect you to change what you do because of an editorial you read in a magazine— Where's the motivation?—but take a minute to look around your facility or at your business processes. What if today was your first day on the job and you could see things the way you saw them then? You have the advantage of knowing much more about the situation. Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look and try to recapture that firstday feeling.

December marks my one-year anniversary at Material Handling Management. The time has zoomed by. We've made a lot of changes and improvements, and more are on the way in 2006. Please keep your ideas and feedback coming so that our team can continue to give you the information and stories that you need to know in order to succeed.

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