Wednesday, July 21, 2004

French Hours

Seth Godin has a great article in this month's Fast Company (as always, you may need to go buy the magazine to get the access code or wait until you can view the article for free) regarding French Hours.  What are French Hours?  Seth uses the Hollywood movie business, and in particular the 10 day shooting schedule of Joel Schumacker's Phone Booth (hey, Schumacher was the one that coined "french hours" when talking about the film) to contrast with the normal multiple month or year shooting schedule of normal Hollywood movies.  Specifically, during Phone Booth, no lunch breaks were taken because all of the staff agreed not to take lunch breaks (food was simply available for crew to grab and eat when they could) versus normal movies where there a very specifically set times or hour metrics that determine exactly when each meal must occur and the entire production stops while the crew eats.  In short, French Hours mean moving more quickly and more efficiently while still retaining the same quality.

French Hours are applicable even outside the entertainment industry and Seth proposes 4 rules for implementing French Hours; here are those rules with my comments:

  • Every person must want to do it, and there must be an alternative job if anyone chooses not to.  It would probably be optimal if the alternate job was not something demeaning (i.e., work on this project for 12 hours (or more) a day, or clean the toilets with a toothbrush).
  • You can't do it all the time.  People burn out.  It's just that simple.  High-stress, long-hour tempos burn people out even faster than normal, so it is not advisable to stay at an elevated operational tempo all the time.
  • Everyone on the team has to be reminded of the uniqueness of the situation (and the team) on a regular basis.  The urgency and intensity of the team and the project live in the emotional buy-in and intensity of the leader; it is up to the leader to constantly remind the team why it is that they have bought into this environment.
  • You have to stop.  All at once.  There will be no tying up loose ends, dotting the i's and crossing the t's; when the project is done, it's done and that's it.  Why is this so important?  Because ending abruptly at full completion leaves the team excited about the project rather than dreading the mop-up work.

The great thing about projects where team members have signed up for French Hours is the excitement and competition that is bred within the project.  Let's say that everyone signs on for 12 hour days.  Everyone on the team is going to try to compete to stay a little bit longer and work a little bit harder than the other people on the team.  The end result?  A quality project that employees are excited about that may even get completed before its deadline.

Here's an example from my personal experience:

We had to park 8,000 cars in dirt fields for a festival-type concert.  None of the fields were marked with spaces and the patrons wanted to get parked so that they could either start partying or make their way up to purchase tickets, pick up will-call, etc.  I had a crew of not very many people with whom I had to park the cars in these fields; normally this crew got several distinct breaks for bathrooms and water etc. -- and this day it was about 90 degrees.

Before any cars started showing up, me and another supervisor talked with the crew and simply told them that there was no way to have organized breaks because of the volume of cars and the time of the show.  What we did offer was a constant stream of water and food available at any time from the back of a golf cart and the ability to take a quick restroom break at any time.  I did explain that any time one person took a break, that meant double the work for the guy next to him until he returned.  Furthermore I explained that the more quickly we got the cars in, the more quickly we would be done with the job.  Anyone that didn't want to be part of the crew could be reassigned to some other job.

Everyone elected to stay and as the cars began to pull in myself and another supervisor showed the crew our very effective festival car parking method; the method keeps you constantly in motion and requires a fair amount of brain power -- essentially it turns a very boring job into a very exciting one.  As the column of cars began to increase, I again offered to let anyone that wanted to leave -- no one wanted to leave.

As I had promised, a golf cart was provided with a cooler full of water, drinks, and food and there were port-o-lets spread throughout the lots.  The biggest problem I had was keeping everyone hydrated: no one wanted to take a break for a bottle of water, so me and the other supervisor started delivering the water so that the crew could keep working.  Any time someone actually got to the point where they truly needed a break (it was usually just to run to the restroom), either myself or the supervisor would take their place until they were done, ensuring that the crew saw that we were willing to do the same job that we were asking them to do.

Once we had the lots about 95% full and the traffic had died, I pulled the crew in.  Some of the crew offered to stay in the lots and park the remaining cars, but I told them that we could just let the cars sort themselves out when they arrived; I had the next day of needing the crew to perform in exactly the same way and did not want a few of the crew to become embittered at having to stay in the lot any longer than necessary.

What's great about French Hours is how intuitive it is to almost everyone.  Heed Seth's four rules and add in some leading by example, and you can reap the rewards.

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