So much to do, so little time?

For my birthday a few weeks ago, my lovely partner bought me a pocket watch. It’s a thing of beauty, a skeleton watch, which means you can see all of the cogs and springs working away. I’m very taken with it, and have been enjoying popping it out foppishly to check the time, winding it up a little, and putting it away. Sadly, the other morning, the winding mechanism became uncoupled, so it ran flat, and has been sent for repair.

There was a pleasing symmetry between the demise of my watch and the way things have been running at the shop of late. In the middle of last year, as a colleague left, we made the decision to shorten the opening hours a little, and spread the hours out among the remaining staff. The knock-on effect was there was very little slack built into the system. As soon as the doors were open, we were busy, and everyone was having to run at close to 100% efficiency just to get everything done.

Unsurprisingly, no one can work at this level of intensity for very long, and things slowly began to come uncoupled. My time was suddenly taken up stacking shelves and dealing with the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operation, rather than the ephemeral business of tracking down new beers and wines, getting them to the shop, and persuading people to buy them.

As an aside, there’s something of a paradox here, because the better the new beer, the easier it is to sell. The staff will try it, and if they like it, boom – the case is gone. Not only do they recommend it to customers, but they also buy it themselves. It’s not great for the customers, but at least the beer goes to a loving home, albeit for only a few days. But I digress.

There must be a sweet spot in business where there is enough work for people to do, but not so much that they can’t get everything done. This was brought home to me spectacularly last week when I had a big delivery and a lot of shelf-stacking to do.

A year ago, we would have been opening a couple of hours earlier, giving us not only more time to deal with the delivery, but also more quiet time to get stock on to the shelves and deal with other things. This is both the boring stuff (banking and bookkeeping) and the slightly less boring (creating a Twitter account for the shop targetting everyone listed as being in Leeds, making tasting videos for the website, and dreaming up beer clubs built around my new book 500 Beers).

I quite often find myself on my feet for nine hours at a time, with perhaps a bag of chilli peanuts and a can of pop for afternoon tea. It’s stupid, it can’t go on, and it’s just not efficient. If you’re required to work at 100% efficiency, there isn’t any room for error. If you make a mistake, efficiency isn’t just reduced by a few percentage points, it grinds to near zero, as you have to stop and pick up the pieces, steady yourself and try to regain lost momentum.

Apart from anything else, it’s no damn fun at all, and I’m a firm believer that work should at least be enjoyable, if not actually fun. Part of the fun is having the time to put your feet up and say “what if we try this?”, and that’s where the good ideas come from. But you need time to discover them.