Lest We Forget

We are a fast-moving company and every day is a multicolored blur of leather and strategy. Oftentimes I find myself so deep crunching numbers, comparing spreadsheets, determining breakevens, and planning our next moves that it’s easy to forget what this is all about: the impact.

I am writing this on January 20th and got back from Guatemala only a day ago, so everything is still fresh. I was down there for about 2 weeks working on process improvement, streamlining customer service, and making sure we get the right product to the right place at the right time. Sounds fun, right?

In preparation for the trip, I spent a lot of time planning, problem solving and preparing in order to make the best possible use of my time. Guatemala has a way of forcing you to its entropic will. As such, I set out with a strict itinerary, a list of goals and outcomes; I was going in full-speed with blinders on to filter out the noise. And much like a racehorse, tunnel-visioned, I sprinted straight ahead.

After a delay in departure (thanks cyclone-bomb), I arrived in Guate and made my way to the workshop. I hadn’t been there since we first scouted the location nearly 8 months earlier. It was late afternoon on Saturday and there was a single craftsman (Rudy) prepping soles for Monday morning; steel machines made a half century ago in the American Midwest sat silent, resting before the Monday bustle. It was almost eerie, this quiet little shop nestled beneath palm trees and ringed by volcanoes, it is quite literally the image that comes to my mind when I think of the word picturesque. And then came Monday.

Horacio, our shop manager (and one of our original craftsmen) started the huddle, a morning conversion that is 50% pep-talk, 50% life coaching, 50% improv comedy, and 50% daily strategy—and yes, every one of these speeches does equal 200%, Horacio is just that talented. He intro’d me to those whom I hadn’t previously met and told them about my role in the company and why I was there. In his words, “To look at what we do and think about how we can do it better.”

So there I was, firmly planted in a plastic lawn chair, hunched over a notebook with knockoff Power Ranger cover art and writing everything that piqued my interest, caught my eye, or that I didn’t understand—my pen ran out. It was a constant blur of action, a hammer here, a knife there, and of course…leather everywhere. I was awestruck by the technique and precision of the craftsmen, it was pure skill. Seven hours later I was staring at 15 pairs of gorgeous shoes.

The day was finished and the craftsmen started cleaning up, a few stayed behind for some extra training on operating the Goodyear Welt machine, and I just kind of meandered about the shop, feeling somewhere between hungover and mentally exhausted. I talked to a few of the cobblers about what I thought was a breakneck pace of production, asking them if they were as weary as I. Luis told me that this was a pretty normal pace and that they could probably go faster. I was floored, but after further conversation I started to realize why this wasn’t the Guinness Book record achievement I thought it was. This IS their craft, their skill, their artform.

Over the next couple weeks I was continuously blown away by the incredible competence of the team. I would suggest an alteration to the production flow, and with a bit of translation help from Horacio, the craftsmen would alter their process and run through the adjustment to great effect. What was so impressive to me was the willingness of the craftsmen to make these changes and fully commit to them.

Most of the cobblers we work with have been making shoes since they learned to ride a bike. Working for their parents or grandparents, they honed the skill at a young age and have been making shoes for decades before they joined the Adelante team. When I did the math, I realized that the cobblers have almost two centuries of combined experience.

This set me on a path of wondering why. Why would the cobblers be willing to change a process they had refined over decades? Why would they eagerly adjust how they made shoes at my request? After all, they are the experts!

After more conversation with the craftsmen I started to gain clarity on the answer; in one word, trust. What we are doing in Guatemala is pretty unique. By providing consistent employment through salaried jobs, setting up our craftsmen with savings accounts, and enrolling them in privatized healthcare, we have proven that we are investing in their future. As a result, the craftsmen are investing in ours.

The lesson here is simple. Treating people well, investing in their stability, and creating a foundation of trust means you can be a more effective organization. We pride ourselves in the openness of our company, encourage feedback from the craftsmen, and leverage their insight and experience in everything we do. The relationship is symbiotic. As we grow, our impact grows. As we succeed, our craftsmen succeed.

When you are staring at a spreadsheet, it can be easy to forget that those number are people. Their growth, happiness, and well-being is the foundation of who we are and the reason this company exists. Lest we forget our roots, our reason for being, our means for affecting change.

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