A Tale of Two Barbers


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Late one afternoon, a man in need of a haircut encountered two barbershops on opposite sides of the same street. When the man inspected the first barbershop, he saw that the floor was covered with hair, the aprons were carelessly flung over the back of a chair and the clippers and scissors were in disarray.

When the man examined the second barbershop, he saw that it was immaculate. The floors were swept clean, the aprons were carefully hung on a rack and the barber's tools were polished and arranged neatly on the counter.

The man promptly returned to the first barbershop for his haircut.

In an age when concepts like "lean manufacturing," "six sigma" and "5S for safety" have become a way of life for many of us, the man's decision would seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

Of course, the little nugget of enlightenment hidden within the story is that the man chose the messy barbershop because he theorized that the sloppy barber was the better barber. If the other barber had the time to sweep his floors, hang his aprons and organize his tools, he probably didn't have a lot of customers, which implies that he probably wasn't very good.

In some ways, my job makes me feel like the man in need of a haircut.

When I'm visiting a job shop for a story, I'm usually seeing it at its best. When a job shop owner or manager knows that somebody from the "outside" is coming in—whether that person be an editor, a customer, etc.—he or she usually makes an effort to ensure that the shop is neat and clean.

Now don't get me wrong. I think it's great that a job shop goes to the trouble of "cleaning up" before my arrival. It creates a pleasant, professional image, boosts employee morale and makes for nice photos. But at the same time, it's sort of like putting out the good china when you have company coming over to your house. The guest feels honored that the host is serving from the good dishes, but he also has a sense that what he's experiencing isn't necessarily the norm.

A few months ago, I visited a powder coating shop in the Midwest. The manager of the shop had forgotten that I was coming, so my arrival took him by complete surprise. Still, he agreed to meet with me for an interview and plant tour.

As we walked through the facility, I noticed that the floor of the loading dock was littered with boxes and crates from a large shipment that had come in earlier that morning. In another part of the shop, several employees were huddled together attempting to troubleshoot a problem with the pretreatment system. Meanwhile, a frustrated masking technician was attempting to figure out the best way for masking a new part that had come in.

In spite of my assurances that everything was fine, the manager kept apologizing for the state of the facility. The truth is, it was refreshing to see the facility in the midst of a handful of crises. In seeing how the staff responded to each problem, I got a much better "day in the life" look at this particular job shop. And to be honest, seeing how the team effectively solved each problem was as satisfying as any new technology or lean manufacturing practice they might have shown me.