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How to use a stopwatch

How to use a stopwatch

Posted by Rick Wren on Jan 29th 2021

The gym teacher had a whistle and a stopwatch. He would yell out, “Ready, set, go,” and dramatically click that stopwatch to show kids he was serious, that this run was being timed. Presumably there would be bragging rights for record setters, but mostly there was shame for slackers. “How could you be even slower this week than you were last week?” “Don’t you care?”

A stopwatch was a fixture throughout school and yet it was never used correctly. In track the coach would decide who made the team through timed races. In football starters would differentiate from benchwarmers by tenths of seconds in the forty or the hundred. One had to be at their best on that moment in that day and everything leading up to it either prepared you or was wasted.

We had some grueling training in the military. Obstacle courses and marches, both long and short, weighted and not. The stopwatch prominently figured in the D.I.’s hands during those workouts also. The scores were posted and compared and everyone was to be striving for course records and best times.

That’s one way to use a stopwatch, but it isn’t the way you’re going to improve your business and motivate your employees.

In college, my engineering textbooks and my professors hammered the idea of benchmarks into my head and I knew the concepts so well that I could ace the tests. I didn’t really “get” the concept until one day I was staring at bottles of vegetable oil racing past me on a conveyor belt. The problem was that the bottler spit out nearly 6000 bottles an hour, but by the time they got to the boxing and palletizing machines the line was only doing 3600 per hour.My job was to take the existing equipment and optimize it so that the operators didn’t have to shut down the bottler 10 times a day. My most important tool: a stopwatch.

First I tweaked the labeler and then I’d time and count, then more tweaks and more timing and counting.10 seconds wouldn’t do it. A minute? More?Turns out that I really couldn’t get a good handle on the process until I saw thousands of bottles go through a piece of machinery.It’s what’s happening over the long term that makes the difference.I worked on the capper and the boxer the same way and eventually everything was running so smoothly that the line didn’t have to be shut down all day.

Stopwatches don’t just give you a snapshot of what’s happening in an instant. They give you an idea of where your weaknesses are in speed and quality. They give you a way to improve the entire process. Your task can be bottling some vegetable oil or running a marathon or cleaning driveways. Stopwatches give you benchmarks.

When I first started my window cleaning business I kept a notebook in my truck and had a stopwatch with me at all times. Today every phone has a stopwatch built in, but back then I must have looked a sight, with a stopwatch around my neck. I’m sure some clients thought that all I needed was a whistle and gym shorts to beckon back to bad school memories.

Here are the things that are important:

1. How fast you do something 100 times matters far more than how fast you do it 1 time.

The IWCA holds a competition every year for the title of fastest window cleaner. It’s fun to watch, but really doesn’t translate well to the business of window cleaning. 3 panes of glass in 10 seconds is impressive, but do you have the stamina, the tools, and the movements to keep up a pace for 8 hours or more?When you time yourself or your employees for business improvement, keep track of what can be done in an hour or more. Keep track of how long an entire job takes and look for the things that seem to slow your process down.

I have speed requirements for my newbies before they can get their first raise. It’s measured in how many panes of glass of various types they can clean perfectly in an hour. In order to get that measurement though, I time them for two hours and divide by two. That’s the average and it gives me a better idea of how they pace themselves and how they can perform than if I just said, “Do that window in 20 seconds!”


2. Time between tasks is more important than time on a task.

I’ve had crewmembers who can clean some glass like a machine. Amazing speed and control. And I’ve had to look for those employees on jobs. Every time I turn around they are taking a break or moseying along to the truck to get something or play on their phones and text or post or take selfies.I’ve had guys who can wash a house quickly and well, yet it takes them two hours to wind up their hoses and clean up.

A truly valuable team member is one who keeps going, moves between windows quickly, unloads and loads up with the same attitude they have while cleaning. I count myself as one of those team members and I have to remind myself to keep the pace and quality up even on tasks that might seem more mundane or less important.


3. Keep an open mind when it comes to improvements.


Not every tool or innovation or system is going to work. Just because it’s new and flashy and expensive doesn’t mean it gets a pass. You got a new brush and the manufacturer touts its speed? Test it, time it, and see if it is better. Make your evaluations matter. When you upgrade your pressure washer, check it out and see how much time you’re saving. See how many hours of runtime will pay off your investment.Be truthful with yourself and don’t fudge the benchmarks. Sure you might be skeptical of claims sometimes, but you will be able to continually improve, smartly.

I happen to think that after my squeegee and mop, my stopwatch has been the best tool I’ve used in my business.

I’m here if you have questions.

- Rick Wren