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on knowing where you are starting from

I have written before about how something that I was taught early in my life began to useful to me much later, and often in ways that I had not considered when first learning it. One of these was summed up in the words; “If you want to get somewhere, always know where you are starting from”.

Many years ago I was working for a wholesaler and, as part of my being shifted around departments to assess my potential as a future department manager, I found myself in the transport department. My boss there was a fifty something Cockney who had served in the Army during WW2 and who seemed to me had little time for the long haired nineteen year old that had been foisted on him, but he put me to work on various things that otherwise would not have been done. He rode me hard to “knock the piss and vinegar” out of me. By the end of my first day it was almost a relief to be told to park the vans up for the night.

There were nine vans to park in a small area between two buildings where we could then lock metal gates in front of them for the night. There was not really enough room, but if you put the first three tight against the wall on their nearside, then parked the next three tight against the first line there would be enough space too get the big van, with its sliding driver’s door, into the back line of the third row and then the two small vans would go in front of that. If you got it right it was perfect, but if you got it wrong you had to do it again until you got them all to fit. The other problem was that you had to fold the nearside mirror in on each van to squeeze them in and then fold the offside mirror away ready for the next line of vans.

I screwed up and was on my fourth attempt when the boss came out, told me to stand aside and watch as he got all of the vans out and started again. He did it swiftly and accurately in one go (and it was not his normal job to do it, so it wasn’t just practice).  The next night was the same and on the morning of the third day I got the lecture that, if you wanted to get somewhere, you had to know where you were starting from. Even then the penny did not drop, but that evening as we packed up he told me to watch him as he did it. He did the first and then told me to do the next one. It took me three goes. The he did the next two before handing over to me again. Another three goes. He took over for the next one and this time I really tried hard to watch everything that he did. This time the penny dropped; he was folding the nearside mirror away after he held lined the van up to reverse, then was watching his offside mirror in which he could see the equivalent mirror of the van that he was backing towards. It was only when he had got all three vans in each of those two lines into place that he would then fold their offside mirrors back ready for the third line. He didn’t tell me, he made me work it out and it was only then that I asked in him and he told me, in more colourful language, that I was right. The trick was to get the van into the right place to start the reverse and then it was easy.

Ten years later I was a systems analyst testing software and, although I didn’t think of my former mentor, I developed my own system of making sure that I knew exactly what the baseline I was working from when I devised a test routine so that I had a stable start point from which I could measure whether the new software version that I was testing did only what it was supposed to do. A few more years I was leading project teams and having to ensure that what we did delivered the results that the business desired. It was whilst I was briefing  my team on this crucial premise that I suddenly found myself back in an alleyway parking vans.

Knowing where you are starting from allows you to be sure about whatever changes you make to processes will actually give you the results that you are looking for. I don’t suppose that my old boss knew how much use I would make of his lesson, or the others that he taught me in my few weeks with him, and I didn’t appreciate their wider value either back then, but they all turned out to be invaluable in the end, perhaps more so once I realised where I had learned them and why.

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