The Sweeps Story

Peter Hunter
Posted: 01/08/2012

The Sweeps Story I was living on the West Coast of Scotland having recently published the book, "Breaking the Mould". The book is an amalgam of stories written about what had happened in the Oil Exploration Business when, instead of being told what to do by their bosses, the drilling crews were allowed to think for themselves about the solutions to their own problems. The solutions they produced were consistently astonishing and for the most part were ideas they’d had in their heads for years. The individuals in the drilling crews all had the experience and inventive natures to produce these innovative solutions but the way they were treated by their managers prevented them from displaying the discretionary effort that would have brought these ideas to their manager’s attention. As a result of the publication of the book I was prevailed upon to help an acquaintance with a particular problem he had with his business in Glasgow. The company was a family run firm of chimney sweeps. They ran six teams throughout the West Coast of Scotland each with its own van and set of chimney cleaning and maintenance equipment. One of their major contracts was with the local authority in Glasgow who managed an increasingly ageing stock of tenement houses. These were four or five storey terraced houses with apartment accommodation on each floor. The houses were built mainly in the latter half of the nineteenth century and comprised a large proportion of the housing stock of the city. A hundred years later and they were starting to be cleared to make way for the newer housing required by a different generation. Whole streets were torn down before the city realised they were in danger of losing these iconic buildings for ever. Preservation orders were put on the remaining tenements and the city started to take serious care of them to allow current tenants to continue to live in them while bringing them to a standard suitable for twentieth century living. When built the only source of heating in these tenements was a coal fire in each room. Depending on the size of the apartment this could mean up to seven or eight fireplaces and there might be four apartments on each floor. The result was a massively complex chimney system. In the twentieth century this system had largely been replaced by gas, electric or oil heating so most of the fireplaces were disused. A significant number however remained in use and, after a hundred years of sweeping, those chimneys had begun to show their age. Some blocked by collapses and others allowing communication in a way that allowed smoke to penetrate into apartments that did not have active fireplaces. The job of the chimney sweep, in addition to sweeping, included the location and repair of the structural failures that were increasingly affecting these older tenement houses. When the contract was first awarded it was clear that they would have to do something different in order to identify and isolate the many problems. Fortunately technology provided a solution in the shape of a video camera system that could be lowered down the chimney and steered around the flues until the collapse or communication was located. When it worked, the system worked well allowing leaking chimneys to be sealed and function restored. Unfortunately the cameras were expensive and did not appear to last very long before the crews were asking for replacements. The owner of the company, in a chance conversation, discovered that the reason the cameras did not last very long was that the crews treated them in exactly the same way they treated the rest of their equipment. When they were finished with it they put the camera back in its box then threw the box into the back of their van with the rest of their sand, cement, bricks and brushes. By the time I met the owner of this company he was at his wits end. He had asked his crews to take care of the cameras, he had told them to look after them, he had threatened to take the replacement cost out of their wages, nothing had made any difference. They still broke the cameras. The owner of the company had read the book "Breaking the Mould," and, more in hope than expectation, asked if I could help him. The problem was pretty straight forward so I agreed. I recognised immediately the same lack of care and absence of discretionary effort that typified the behaviour of the exploration drillers who had been subject to the Command and Control behaviour of their managers. I sat with the crews and instead of telling them what I thought the solution was, asked them what they thought the problem was, and if they could come up with their own solutions. In the first meeting the crews explained to me that the real problem was not their handling of the cameras but the flimsy box that was supplied with it, something they had never shared with the owner of the company. Having established their perception of the problem the crews then began to get involved in the creation of the solution and in no time their sketches of a suitable strong box were being circulated until a consensus was reached about the design of the box and the brackets that would allow it to be secured to the floor of the van under the passenger seat where it would be additionally protected from other equipment being thrown in through the back doors. The company owner, for the price of a few square metres of steel plate, gave the crews the materials they needed to construct the strong boxes that put an abrupt end to the breakages. I was never asked back to that company but the owner told me later that he had understood the difference between allowing the crews to care about the problem and thus create their own solutions, and telling the crews what he thought was the solution. One way worked and the other didn’t, this man had understood the reason why. Peter A Hunter

Peter Hunter
Posted: 01/08/2012


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