What My Paper Route Taught Me About Continuous Improvement

Whether it was raining, windy, cold, or hot, this ten-year-old kid delivered papers for the Salem Capital Journal every afternoon except on Sundays.  The route was important to me.  As a kid, I liked to save the money I made and buy things I really wanted.  For example, I bought and put together this really cool Heathkit shortwave radio receiver that allowed me to listen to people across the world.  As an adult, my paper route experience became a metaphor and symbol for how I think about “continuous improvement” as applied to life and to business.  It became the foundation for how I make a living as an adult.

Set Standards and Objectives and Aim to Meet Them

My first week as a delivery boy was horrible.  Everybody was mad.  Mom didn’t like the fact that I was delivering in the dark in the winter.  My customers were complaining that their papers were delivered late.  The Capital Journal was upset that I was not finishing my route by 5:30 pm.  That was their standard.

“Standards?  What are standards?” I asked myself.  Well, in a later conversation with my Dad he explained that standards are like objectives or goals.  They are the things that people expect from you and if you don’t meet those standards people around you will not be happy and sometimes will provide unpleasant consequences.  It suddenly became clear why my customers, the Capital Journal, and even my mom were loudly annoyed with me.

What this newfound understanding of “standards” did was force me to plan my day and set targets for starting and stopping.  I realized that there wasn’t much “wiggle room” on these either without suffering some consequences.  So, I now had standards – start at 3 pm and end by 5:30 pm at the latest.  And if you don’t meet the standard, I realized that I should expect people to be irritated.

Fix What’s Broke

I quickly learned that regardless of what I had hoped, life happens.  Things were not right with my bike.  One tire would keep losing air pressure and so by the time I would get home, it was usually really low and very difficult to pedal.

In addition, it seemed like every other day my chain would fall off and I’d have to take the paper bag off my handlebars, flip the bike upside down, and put the chain back on.  It was annoying, it often made me late, and again nobody was happy about my inconsistent route times.

If things went really well, I would be able to complete my route in just over 2 hours.  But most of the time it was between 2 hours and 45 minutes and 3 hours since I was having these reoccurring bike problems.

One evening I explained this to my Dad and after dinner he and I “fixed what was broke” on my bike.  We put a patch on the tire’s inner tube and took a couple of links out of the chain.  It was fun working with Dad, it was nice to not worry about my bike “making it” anymore, and my route times were much more consistent from this point on.

Prevent Failures or Breakdowns

My dad also showed me some preventative things I could do to keep the bike in good order including performing tire pressure checks, chain tension checks, and oiling the chain and wheel bearings.  His point in showing me these things was that I did not have to suffer these breakdowns if I took care of my bike in the first place.

He encouraged me to always check my bike over before starting and exclaimed, “fix what appears like might go wrong.  If your chain is beginning to get loose, increase the chain tension or take a link out.  Avoid wear in your bearings, chain, and gears by oiling them.  You will find you will coast a lot more with less work on your part.”

He was right.  My bike rarely broke down anymore.  My tires always were at proper pressure.  And my route times were always around 2 hours.  It would be unusual at this point for any papers to be late and to get complaints.  If I was late now it was because of Max.

Empower Others to Operate and Maintain

What was unknown to me at the time was that my Dad was not only helping me fix what was broke and teaching me how to do preventative maintenance, he was also saying through these experiences, “You do it”.  I’ve taught you, go try it, and become good at it.  It’s your responsibility now.”

He was always available to assist, but he wasn’t interested in doing “my” work; he was only interested in teaching me and in a sense “certifying” me as competent so that I could do the work myself.  Some call that empowerment.  Others might call this the “act of engaging” people.  I call it “life”.  We all must learn and step up.  The more we can do to control our performance, the better.

Identify and Eliminate Special or Abnormal Causes of Problems

Max, the big scary dog owned by one of my customers, was usually on his chain.  But if he was off his chain, he would bark incessantly and run out to me in an intimidating fashion.  I’d freeze and I wouldn’t move again until somebody in the house would come put him back on his chain because I believed he would bite me.

One day after getting home late and I’m sure looking a bit agitated, Dad asked me about how the route was that day.  Even though I was eleven by then, I started crying and explained to Dad about Max and how scary he was and how I would have to stand very still until somebody tied Max back up.  Well my Mom and Dad were astounded and angry.

Dad motioned for me to follow him; we got into the car; and we drove to Max’s house.  Dad knocked on the door and introduced himself and me and explained to Maxine, the owner, what Max was doing to me.  Maxine was surprised and very apologetic and promised that it would not happen again.  My dad thanked her but reinforced with her that he expected that these dog situations would never occur again.  She understood and assured both of us that it would not happen.

And guess what?  It didn’t.  Max no longer was left off his chain.  I felt kinda bad for Max having to be tied up all the time but was glad there was no chance of getting bit.  Later that spring Maxine and her family built a fence around the front yard that would allow Max to run without fear of intimidating anybody.  Max was happier now and I was too.  Overall, this situation provided many benefits.  Max didn’t make my route longer anymore.  And, whenever it got really hot, Maxine would be at the paper box with an ice-cold drink and a cookie.

What I learned from this is that sometimes there are special or unique causes of inconsistency.  Max was a unique or special cause of not being able to do my route in 2 hours.  And usually when we identify these special abnormal causes, we can fix them.  And sometimes fixing these special causes makes other things better too – cold drinks and cookies.

Define the Process, Evaluate It, and Redesign It – Again and Again

Since I didn’t have to worry about the dog anymore, I began thinking about how I could do things different to improve my times even more.  I was actually mentally tracking my route times.  I was surprised that I was essentially monitoring, evaluating, and making judgements about my performance.  Who at eleven does that?

I started thinking about my delivery process.  At each stop, I would stop the bike, grab the paper from the bag, fold it, slip it into the paper box, and push off with my foot to begin pedaling to the next paper stop.  It was two hours of starting and stopping.  And if the wind was blowing or the rain was falling, this made starting and stopping difficult and would extend route times by 15 minutes or more.

I started experimenting, trying ideas out, doing things different to see if I could improve my route times.  My first experiment was to pre-fold all the papers and place them into the bag ahead of the route.  That cut about 10 minutes.  But it was really boring to sit there and fold about a hundred papers.

After a couple of months of trying a variety of new things and experimenting with different methods, I slashed my route time to 1 hour and 30 minutes, cutting off a whole half an hour from my normal time.  I discovered that I could grab a paper from the bag, fold it, and slip it into the paper box without stopping my bike.  I did have to slow a bit, but I didn’t have to stop.  It was impressive if I do say so myself.

It didn’t stop there, I made other improvements as well that incrementally drove my route time down over time.  I was always searching for some new way to save time.

Sustain Your System

Things were good.  My route was essentially always around 1 and a half hours maximum and I really had no issues…until Summer.  During school I’d be in a routine and it was easy to just go with the flow.  But summer was different.  Every day was different, every day had unique opportunities, and almost every day provided temptations to change my paper delivery standards and process.

Of course, any young eleven or twelve-year-old often succumbs to temptation.  I did for sure.  And when that would happen, I would get complaints.  And mom would start harping on me.  And…well you understand.  There is a point where self-discipline and self-control must show up in your life to sustain good performance.  Sometimes to sustain a result, you just have to “suck it up” and have the self-discipline to get it done.  It’s not pretty, it’s not automatic, it’s grit and determination.

Even though sustainment was ultimately “on me”, Dad got me some tools that helped the self-control stuff.  He bought me a watch and said use this to know when it’s time to go to work.  Set the alarm to remind you that it’s time to deliver papers.  And he taught me to have time targets for certain points in my route that I could use to judge whether I was on time, behind, or ahead on my route.  It helped me monitor myself, adjust my speed accordingly if I was behind, give me a sense of control over my performance, and the self confidence in my ability to meet everyone’s standards.

Create a Supportive Environment

When I look back on all this, it is clear that Dad had helped me to be successful and to sustain good performance.  He helped me understand standards and their impact.  He helped me fix my bike and learn how to maintain it.  He taught me how to fix bike problems and prevent them.  He helped me with Max.

Dad also taught me that ultimately I would have to use the watch to control myself in a manner that allowed me to be successful.  I did what he suggested; it helped me when I was “time” distracted.  It was a daily reminder when I looked at it that only I controlled me – nobody else could or would – ever.

Finally, my success was in part because of the support system that I had around me that included my Dad and my Mom.  They both were supportive and got involved to help take out the constraints to my success that I couldn’t do myself.  We may think we are islands onto ourselves – we are not; we are connected to those around us.  Being connected with those who are supportive of the path we are taking helps facilitate our success as we define it.  Creating that supportive environment for yourself is critical.

Continuous Improvement Summary

At this point in my career as a paper boy, I had learned some of the basic principles of continuous improvement (CI).  No, I didn’t know the vocabulary of CI or all the fancy tools that the CI toolbox has in it.  But I had learned and was using the basic principles of CI that included:

  • Set standards and aim to meet them.
  • Fix what is broke in your system.
  • Prevent failures or things breaking from occurring.
  • Empower and engage others to operate and maintain.
  • Eliminate unique or special causes of inconsistency or problems.
  • Identify the current method, question it, redesign it – continuously.
  • Sustain the improved system.
  • And have a supportive environment.

These are the principals of continuous improvement.  This is the way I approach living even after all these years.  And, in my humble opinion, any person, organization, or entity would do well to follow them.

1 thought on “What My Paper Route Taught Me About Continuous Improvement

  1. I had a Washington Post paper route for 7 years, starting when I was 10 years old. I had 75 customers. I got up at 4:15 am 7 days a week, used a Washington Post Wagon to pull my papers around and finished my route at 6:15 am. I never had Any Trouble WHATSOEVER. I pulled the wagon in Blizzards, Rain etc.

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