Toy construction workers surrounded by toy equipment
A surprising business parable from an unlikely source

This summer, my wife decided to help a few of the local neighborhood kids by hiring them to clean our garbage bins. For $15, they would fully clean our large garbage and recycling bins. My only responsibility was to pay them. One night, our doorbell rang. We both looked shocked since neither of us were expecting someone so late. Much to my surprise, I was met by eight 11-year-olds at my front door. 

“We’re here to clean your garbage,” said the one I’m pretty sure was the project manager.

“Oh yeah? Well the can is out front.”

“It is? Must have missed it.” 

I scratched my head, as there is a huge blue can in our driveway. This was going to be a long night. 

The doorbell rang. They needed our hose. The doorbell rang again. They needed some paper towels. My wife then went out to “inspect” and found they had cleaned out our bin and let the residue run down our block, allowing us to pollute our neighbor’s property. She had to remind them to clean up after themselves. Finally, after 30 minutes of “water games,” she paid them the $15. You could tell the leader was getting antsy. He called his No. 2, who whispered in an agitated manner. 

“Do you think we should ask her when we should come back for another cleaning?” asked the “project manager.” 

“What are you, crazy?! This isn’t a business — we’re just trying to make some money!” said his “wise” cohort.

When my wife told me what unfolded in our driveway, I sat back and said, “There is gold in our garbage bin.” More importantly, the business lessons of these kids unfold every single day in construction organizations and projects. 


Crew Sizing, Pricing & Profitability

There were some who might have missed the small details. Eight crew members for 30 minutes of work for $15. Sure, the materials were “owner furnished,” but was this an effective crew blend? There are 1,500 houses in my community. Assuming there were at least 50% more suckers — I mean kind souls — would this operation ever have been productive? If you are 11 years old, this might seem like a profitable venture until you notice some of the crew “free riding” (in this case, riding their scooters while you are doing the hard work in the Florida heat). 

This same thing occurs all the time on construction sites. Are we effectively analyzing the crew sizes, or are we simply taking the status quo and proceeding with the crew blend we have used every single prior project? Projects require strategic thinking, and so should how we approach crew productivity.


The Long View


Are you simply “trying to make money” or are you running a business? Put another way, too many businesses run season to season or think granularly about how they focus their business efforts. That is playing small ball. I get it, the kids were going back to school, and running a business in July probably would have dug into their summer. However, too many business leaders think like this. These are examples of how they fail to capitalize on long-range thinking:

  • Training and development — Failing to focus on talent development because of immediate project needs that may get in the way
  • Investment in capital expenditures (capex) — Failing to see the return on investment (ROI) on potential investment opportunities because of the short-term impact to cash flow
  • Investment in hiring — Failing to develop/hire a bench because there might not be work “right now”
  • Strategic thinking — Being myopic in one’s worldview and only focusing on short-term prospects rather than long-term bets


Customer Management

When my wife told me about the “project manager,” I almost ran out of the house and offered the 11-year-old a job on the spot. (Hey, they give top athletes scholarships, right?) Think about it: He had the wherewithal to ask my wife for future business. He may have been shut down by his No. 2, but he had moxie and big-picture thinking. 

Now, ask yourself this: Do your project managers, superintendents and foremen ask for repeat business? I recall being on a cruise recently, and every person asked me to remember them when I completed my post-cruise evaluation and to provide them with five stars. Some people might cringe, and it was a little awkward at times. Then I thought about it: The most awkward time was when the service wasn’t five stars. What if your people were required to ask for a testimonial or letter of recommendation at the end of the project? The client can certainly say no. That by itself is telling. If they are doing their job throughout the project and delivering five-star service, there should be no issue in providing a rave review or letter. This also doesn’t mean they waffle on change orders or billings, as there is a backstop to protect against those things. 

The point is that an 11-year-old knew that to grow a business, you need repeat clients. You need to have people who are willing to want you back, and if they don’t, you need to hear that feedback to make corrective actions. Maybe next time, they’ll bring their own paper towels.