Do what your hands find work to do. This advice is meant to encourage you to not over think what you should do to make a living and contribute something to the world. It encourages patience in search of a vocation and discourages contempt for working in the weeds.
Lately, I’ve found myself working in the weeds. Responding to the need for turning our brick and mortar retail operation around, I’m spending a lot of hours checking-in inventory, pricing, publishing products online, and taking orders. It is a far step back from my devops work on our web application.
Inspired by Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal, I perceived a bottleneck in our inventory management process where thanks to a large back office, inventory would be purchased and stored and not efficiently moved-out to the store floor. Part of the bottleneck was the laborious task of checking-in inventory into our point of sales (POS) system. Staff would manually check each item in, scanning the barcode and filling-out a form of the products attributes, i.e. description, cost, quantity received, retail price, vendor. There had to be a faster way.
On the brink of an expensive decision to replace the hardware running our POS system, which included a pair of locally-hosted servers, I grabbed the wheel and made a sharp turn to a cloud-based POS system. Out with the high-end desktop computers, in with the tablets.
It took about a month to make a full switch. I drafted a migration plan, a manual for staff, and transferred the inventory from the old system to the new system. In the process we dumped 50,000 SKUs that we no longer had in stock or would never reorder.
We now use a single email address, accessible to our bookkeeper and inventory management team, to receive invoices from suppliers. These are converted into spreadsheets, massaged to fit our data structure, and then uploaded to our POS system. Cashiers are tasked with pricing products, which they can now quickly do during the week while it is slow.
While I hope we have improved the back office flow of products to the store floor and gain a more accurate account of inventory on hand, I have experienced a few setbacks in the process. First, I fear the increase in flow has increased purchasing. Our goal was to reduce cost of goods by 10% in 2019. Instead it went up 10%. Did the improved speed of importing products encourage more buying and poor quality buying decisions?
Second, we had great help from a couple of summer employees in processing invoices and pricing, but I’m now stuck with a job that other members of our full time staff are unable to assume.
Third, we have a far better picture of our inventory in our POS system than we’ve had before, but it could be better. The cost of goods sold report is not yet a substitute for a physical inventory. Getting it to be a perfect mirror of our physical inventory appears to be an impossible task – a mirage I’ve followed-out into the desert.
Along the way into that desert, is the emerging potential to put all or most of our products online, available for pickup or delivery through our website. In addition to creating 24/7 sales opportunities online, we can also increase discoverability of our shop by putting our products in front of local Google searches for these products.
Probably the best way to solve these problems is to just hire someone to help and now that I’ve said that that’s probably what I will do! Because right now I feel spread thin and dry with too many small, fairly easy technical tasks. That’s not what I want.
What I want and what I expect from work is to assemble something that lives and bares fruit. I think of a gardener as the metaphor for why I work and the meaning of work. The gardener tends to a landscape, designs its systems and assembles the parts. However, she is just one of many actors at work in the garden. Weather, soil, the plants, and animals of the landscape also contribute.
My pleasure as the gardener is to see how it all plays out, the agency of the other actors affirming me and my part in this place with plants growing, water draining, birds congregating. This feels like worthwhile work.
Tuning and maintenance are also meaningful, particularly as decisions come from experience with the garden, come from reflection on it, and from measurement of impact.
I’ve heard said that you shouldn’t bother with problems you can’t solve. Figuring out what the meaning of work is to others is that kind of challenge to me. It may align with some ideas I have of the world – the improvement of the human condition, the decentralization of power, and the democratization and sustainable management of resources. I can’t say my work has any relevance to these beliefs.
Ideal purpose is to work on the urgent issues of our time, but what vanity to believe the janitor may play less of a role in this than a surgeon or an artist. I believe that all that heed their daily tasks in the City with a sense of duty to the common good perform vital work.
Is the wick of a healthy workview lit with good intentions? Why not add-in positive thinking and a winning attitude? I suspect there is a kind of resignation at work that takes shape through intention, positivity, and attitude.
No pain, no gain, but there’s also no gain in the work that’s all pain. There must be flow – some, if even simulated, sense of movement perceived in work. So each day begins with a todo list and ends with the list half checked-off. That’s okay for now.