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Use the right tool for the job

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(More lessons to learn in the frozen north.)

Don’t use clumping kitty litter on your frozen driveway.  Don’t use a survey to improve your relationships.

When I first arrived in Canada I learned all sorts of handy contingency things about coping with the weather. One of those was that you could use kitty litter to sprinkle on an icy path if you had run out of salt or sand. The course grains of desiccated clay would give good traction and you could walk without breaking anything. It is a great example of a tool designed for one purpose being capable of serving another too.

Fast forward to the winter of 2015. I am going to talk about two things that have happened this week. On the face of it they may not appear to be related, but if one moves away from the detail – the ‘what happened’ or the ‘what is’, to the abstract where you might explore themes and lessons learnt, they are very closely related.

Firstly, it is about kitty litter as a tool. Much has happened in the world of managing cats since I last had a Canadian cat, as I discovered last month in looking after Willy, a friend’s old cat. Willy doesn’t use any ol’ kitty litter: he uses the scented clumping variety. I’m not going to say much about the sweet cloying disgusting chemical scent that enveloped the interior of my house during that time. No, I’m more interested in the ‘clumping’ quality of the modern kitty litter. It is allegedly easier to clean out the cat box because the no 1 and no 2 deposits that the cat makes become enveloped in the clumping clay pellets and so they can easily be scooped out with a specially designed tool, rather than dumping all of the litter in a disposable container every few days.

Quite simply, when I got home two evenings ago, after an horrendous drive along a semi-cleared highway with icy patches and the occasional lane narrowing and headlights that had become so gummed up with road muck (salt and sand) that I could barely see or be seen, I was in awe of the beauty of the ice sheet that had taken over my driveway. It was as smooth as one could want for a great hockey game outdoors.

I had just come from a coaching session with a client. This is the second thing I want to talk about.

We had been discussing employee engagement surveys and what ’employee engagement’ really means, and how to achieve it. It dawned on me in this session that the client’s struggle was focused on improving the scores on the survey questions, rather than on establishing and developing working relationships with his employees.

He was trying to use a measuring tape and maybe a spirit level (instruments of measurement) to do the job of the stuff you need to build the relationship. In other words, the psychological equivalent of lumber, the studs, the drywall, the insulation, the moulding were missing from his building site. And so it looked like he was at risk of losing in the engagement stakes because he was using the wrong tools for the job.

I’d previously tried to get him to discover a way of achieving engagement with his staff other than worrying about the survey, but couldn’t get it right. It was so clear to me that he needed to understand that you can’t establish a good rapport with your employees by means of a committee and an action plan, but we weren’t getting anywhere and as his coach my job isn’t just to tell him, it is to help him discover the answers for himself.

And then this tool analogy struck me. I could ask ‘what’s the purpose of a survey?’ He could say ‘to measure how we’re doing’. I could say ‘so it’s a measurement tool?’ Bemused look and then ‘yes…?’ I could then ask ‘are you using the right tool for building relationships then?’ He might say ‘I don’t get it’. ‘You just said that the survey is a measuring instrument – like a measuring stick. If you were building a new deck on your house, is that what you’d be using to create the deck?’ ‘No, of course not….Oh! I SEE!’ And that’s sort of how it went.


The rest of the conversation was exciting because we finally knew what tools we had to talk about. Lesson: use the right tool for the job.

Having a few years ago broken my ankle on much less ice than what was in my driveway now, I was naturally cautious about getting out of the car. I had half a container of scented clumping kitty litter in the back of the car that I’d forgotten to offload when I delivered the cat to his new home.   I thought ‘HA! Kitty litter!’ I happily created a nice little path for myself from the car to the front porch, strewing the litter in front of me as I went, the way I did thirty years ago, when clumping kitty litter didn’t exist. I got inside, took off my beautiful new Blundstone boots and relaxed.

The next morning, all smartly dressed for a business meeting, I padded to the boot rack in the mudroom. As I took a firm grip on the first boot to get my foot into it, there was the most ghastly sensation on my fingers: like I’d just touched someone else’s dog’s poo with my bare hands. UGGHHH! BRR! I dropped the boot. ‘No! I screamed. Not dog stuff on my new boots!’ And then to my horror I found the soles completely encrusted with hard gooey chunks of, yes, clumping kitty litter. It had done a fine job of combining with the accumulated snow on the driveway en route into the house, and then quietly lay there all night, festering and expanding, encasing the rubber soles of my boots… I can’t go on. It was just too disgusting. I went to my business meeting in my Wellingtons.

Today, as my client refined his plans to do some interesting and engaging stuff with his staff, I tried to clean my boots. What are the right tools for such a job? First, a plastic sheet as a working surface. Second, a flat-tipped screwdriver for digging the goop out of the patterns of the soles. Neither of these was purpose-designed for the job, but they were good enough. They were in their own ways the right tools for this job. But there still remained an impossible gooey residue after the scraping and gouging was done. I thought ‘a fierce hard jet of water’. Then I remembered. No, this stuff combines with moisture. I had since Googled it. It is called Bentonite. It is used, inter alia, to line new landfill sites to stop the ooze of noxious stuff into the water table. Water does not seem to be the right tool. I went for the opposite.

The boots are now positioned next to the hot air register on the floor in the kitchen. Overnight the clay should dry out. Tomorrow morning it should drop off pretty easily on a sheet of newspaper. The heat’s not going to be good for the leather and these ARE brand new boots. But as has been said many times, one has to use different thinking to solve a problem than the thinking that created the problem in the first place.   I’m thinking I can always gently massage some nice mink oil into the leather when the boots are clean again.  No doubt the designer of the hot air register did not anticipate my problem with the Blundstones and the clumping kitty litter: it is a tool for introducing comforting hot air into the house, from the furnace in the basement. It is a tool that ensures I stay alive in the frozen north.  Yet, I believe it is the right tool to solve my problem.

And I’m sure my client is also spending a quiet evening, satisfied that he’s continuing in his breakthrough in the world of right tool: right job. I know in the morning I’ll have my boots back and he’ll have made great strides in establishing real relationships with people by talking to them, asking their opinions and telling them what’s going on.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • suzanne February 20, 2015, 4:33 am

    Bentonite is a very sticky clay also used for detoxing the bowel! So no wonder it was so hard to remove

  • joan February 21, 2015, 9:17 am

    Always thinking outside the (litter) box

  • Delphine February 21, 2015, 10:22 am

    Well put, Joan!

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