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August 4, 2020

High Performance Through the Roof

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About a month ago I was sitting in my office, on yet another Zoom call, when a black cloud rolled in. It was not one of those figurative black clouds like a tense relational moment or a catastrophic balance sheet. It was an actual, literal, black cloud.

A few minutes later, it sounded like my office was under attack. I didn’t know if I should immediately end the call and seek shelter, or appease my curiosity and go look to see what in the heck was happening. So, I ended the call, popped out to my deck, and looked down at the ground. Hailstones the size of golf balls and baseballs (I’m not exaggerating) were pounding the ground, as well as my cars, trees, mailbox, and anything else that was unprotected. It was so bad that when we checked our cars after the storm had passed, we found perfectly rounded holes in some of the windshields.

I called our insurance agent, and he sent someone out to look at the cars and the roof. The cars were repaired pretty quick, but for the roof, we got something of a “Get in line, buddy” response.

It took no time for someone to evaluate my roof and confirm that it indeed needed some work. From then on, every few days I’d ask my wife what’s going on, and she would answer, “Just wait. We’re in line.”

A couple of weeks pass, and then, out of the blue, some guys show up unannounced with ladders and shingles. They head up to the roof, arrange several neatly stacked groups of shingles, and then they leave.

Another week goes by. The shingles are just sitting in their stacks on the roof. And then we got “the call.”

My wife texted me at work, “Roof guys coming in the AM. Cars need to be out of the driveway early.”

The next morning, a few minutes after 6:00, two big dually trucks show up carrying a ton of equipment, a handful of workers, and a massive trailer with sides. I was outside with my dog Lola, and the boss walks up and gives me the lowdown on the day.

“We’ll be here all day. We’re stripping off 12 tons of shingles and loading it into the trailer. Let me know if you have any questions.”

And they were off. I was transfixed. It was one of the most impressive displays of a team at work that I’ve ever seen. Really!

Guys headed up the ladders like spider monkeys and started pounding away with hammers. Another couple of guys started circling the house the whole time, picking up any loose shingles that got dropped and keeping all the cords and hoses untangled. The guys on the roof were actually tied to someone on the other side of the roof as a sort of human safety chain. Every single member of the 12-15 man crew clearly knew his role. No one was hanging around daydreaming, no one was in the wrong swim lane, no one was unsure about what to do next. Everyone was contributing equal effort.

Hammers, nail guns, drills, engines, generators, ice chest, Bluetooth speaker. It was structured and wild at the same time, monotonous and hypnotizing.

Fifteen hours later, they shut off the music, packed up, and headed out. The old roof was gone.

The next morning, the two trucks are back just after 6:00. It’s down to six men this time (and it’s a different crew than the tear-down crew), but these guys are equally effective. They’re working so hard I wonder if only one of the six gets to keep his job at the end of the day.

I had to run out for a bit, and when I got back in the early afternoon, they’re gone. The new roof was installed, and the clean up was done.

Like I said, it was one of the most impressive team performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Let’s be honest: part of me just wanted to tell you this story because I was so utterly fascinated. But I also think they demonstrated some things about teams that apply in any industry. Let me suggest six lessons from the roof:

  1. There was a leader who obviously had clearly laid out the tasks and expectations. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that the best managers give clarity, and that truth showed up here in spades. People only implement what they understand and buy into.
  2. They had a proven playbook. Sure, they had to contextualize stuff to each roof, but they weren’t creating a plan from scratch every time. They had a proven process and system to deal with repeated tasks.
  3. Each individual carried his weight. People knowing their roles and being capable of carrying their load is crucial to speed, quality, and safety. One guy was a runner—on the ground all day just circling the house and keeping things going, taking old shingles to the dump truck, keeping all the air compressors going and ropes untangled, etc. If he’s gone or moves too slow, the whole system gets backed up. That was true for everyone, though. Every role was indispensable.
  4. They were thinking, not just moving and doing. John F. Kennedy once said, “The time to repair a roof is when the sun is shining.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about my hail damage, but the idea is clear—don’t just work; think. These guys followed the shadows so they didn’t have to work under direct sunlight. They packed the tools in the right order on the truck. They probably even had a pump-up playlist for certain parts of the day.  
  5. They had done their prework. All the materials were in place days before the army of hammer swingers showed up. They were not making it up as they went. This was not their first roof.
  6. They were good at the “soft stuff”—the little things matter in how your work impacts people. Roofing is no different. Someone had obviously trained these men on how to invade a family’s space correctly. Everyone was friendly but not too friendly. They cleaned up with excellence afterwards. So often, someone is great at job tasks, but they never reach high performance because of the soft stuff—the inability to act with empathy, the inability to connect well with team members, customers, and clients.

These guys exceeded my expectations. And I have to be honest with you—that rarely happens to me in any circumstance.

It almost makes me root for another hailstorm. Not really!

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