Monday, August 17, 2015

The Question of Sheets (Or: all Metaphors are Faulty)

Think of your business as a bedroom -- let's say you're a homeowner and you're looking to rent out your spare bedroom on AirBnB or something like that (we'll leave the troublesome methodology of companies like AirBnB or Uber for some other day when I have the ability to produce TWO multi-thousand-word rants about business decisions). Your bedroom is a business, and your production environment is the bed -- mattress (front-end), box-spring (back-end), bedframe (infrastructure). Your Operations team is the woman who changes the sheets (product release), and this is where things get tricky.

If you're running a shady, quasi-illegal operation out of your spare bedroom, the woman who changes the sheets is probably you, and you're probably not a professional housekeeper. You just want clean sheets that keep the mattress from getting horked up by the weirdo from Brooklyn with the Macbook Pro who leaves beard trimmings in the sink. In this case, you do what any reasonable homeowner does: you go out and buy a set of sheets off the shelf, throw on the fitted sheet, and ignore it until the next person comes along and you have to change the sheets again. You're trying to make some spare scratch on the side, not make a business of it, so this model is fine; you can probably get by with two or three sheet sets and you just pull them off and toss them in the laundry as needed, and most of the time you keep your treadmill with the hangers on it in the corner and there's no problem.

But then you've got some spare cash, so you take out a mortgage on a condo in a building in downtown Portland and rather than moving into it you stage it and decide to rent it out to people visiting PDX for conferences or vacations or whatever, because there's money to be made with spare bedrooms. Now you have a choice: do you become an expert at cleaning? Or do you hire a cleaning service to keep your condo clean between visits? Note that the cleaning service is going to cut into your profits, probably pretty significantly. But you're also going to spend a lot of time and effort on sheets. And if sheets aren't something you want to spend a lot of time on, especially fiddling with fitted sheets on a given mattress, then there's a pretty steep opportunity cost there as well. So either you get to become an expert on sheets and making the bed, or you're going to spend a moderate chunk of the money you're making to have someone else come in and change your sheets for you. Your choice.

But then you realize, you really like managing visitors, and there's lots and lots of people wanting to sleep in Portland, so that's it: you're going to build a hotel in Portland. You're going to have lots and lots of mattresses for lots and lots of visitors. And that means lots and lots of sheets. So now it's time to make some decisions about hiring the people who know something about sheets (and vacuums, and washing machines, and... well, you get the idea).

Like in the hospitality industry, in IT the people who change the sheets and vacuum the floors and fold the corners and spray for bedbugs are fantastically undervalued for the work they do, mostly because when they do it correctly no one notices and when they do it badly companies go under.

This metaphor is getting a little out of control, but you get my point: trust people to know what they're doing, let them do it, and for the gods own sake, pay them reasonably well, or they will desert you in droves the moment that someone else offers them a dollar more an hour to change the sheets.

As an addendum, it was pointed out to me that when you're managing a hotel at scale, no one uses fitted sheets. Instead, the proprietor goes to a special wholesaler and buys a metric ton of flat sheets of a uniform colour and size, which the staff then folds and fits to the particular mattress as necessary based on size and usage. I'll leave the parsing of that as a metaphor for Operations Teams as an exercise for the reader...