Mitch Schneider: The View From Terrace East
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Mitch Schneider: The View From Terrace East

An automotive service business runs best when its purpose, mission, vision, goals and objectives are understood by everyone involved.

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I’m not the type of person who recommends things easily — any kind of “things.” A recommendation is, after all, a tacit testimonial, an affirmation or endorsement of whatever it is you are recommending. 

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Any kind of endorsement is essentially a guarantee that, whatever it is you have recommended, will at the very least meet the expectation you just created. And, that’s where I have a problem. With so much of life and living outside the limits of our control, it’s hard to guarantee much of anything these days!

As odd as a recommendation may sound after that pronouncement, I do have one for you if you ever find yourself in or around Los Angeles with some extra time on your hands.

It will take some planning, a little time and, more than likely, a little effort on your part. But, I promise you will thank me for it later. Go online and find The Disney Concert Hall. It is the winter home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the summer home of the Cal Phil and one of the hidden treasures of Southern California.

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It is said to be acoustically perfect, so much so the Los Angeles Philharmonic actually had to leave Los Angeles for Europe and find another such “perfect” auditorium to learn how to play without “forcing” the music to accommodate itself to the venue.

I can’t tell you how the Disney stacks up against the other great halls in Europe or Asia. I haven’t been to them all. But, I can tell you from personal experience the sound is perfect from anywhere in the house.

By now, you’re probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with cars, trucks, the automotive service industry, you or me. Realistically, it has a lot to do with all of that, albeit, indirectly. You see, we enjoy the Disney so much we’ve subscribed to the California Philharmonic’s summer season. And, because the sound is perfect from just about any seat in the house, we’ve chosen seats that are relatively inexpensive.

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They aren’t what most people would consider premium seats. They aren’t even what some ­people would consider “acceptable” seats! They aren’t in the orchestra or the loge. They’re actually high up in what are called the Terraces. They would be great hockey seats, if you like ice hockey — high in the corners where you get to see all the action! If you drew a line from our seats to the corresponding seats across the hall, the line would cut right across the orchestra.

And, that’s what I really love about them. From where we sit, we have an incredible view of what is actually going on as the conductor guides the orchestra through the program. And, that’s where all this is coming from … the view from Terrace East.

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You see, for the first time, I can see the relationship that exists between the musicians in the orchestra and the maestro, the conductor. I get to see all the things you can’t see while seated in the “good” seats, while the conductor has his back to you. And, seeing that, watching the conductor make eye contact with the musicians in the various sections of the orchestra and then watching them respond is worth whatever the season’s subscription cost — not because the music is exceptional (although it is), but because of the similarities I could see between what was happening on stage and what happens here in the shop every day.

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From behind, the only thing most of us get to see is the cut of the conductor’s tux and his sometimes dramatic, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes subtle movements, and whether or not the orchestra appears to respond. I have watched conductors pretty carefully in the past and have almost always failed to see the correlation between what they are doing and how the orchestra responds. All too often, the two don’t always seem connected!

Well, sitting where I sit now, I can see the connection. At least, a deeper connection than I have ever witnessed in the past.

Until now, it looked pretty much the way I feel most days: Me working furiously to guide the shop forward, to move things in one direction or another, to put out a fire over here or avert a crisis over there, while everyone around me is doing whatever they think is appropriate … or, feel like doing at the moment. Sometimes it feels like we’re all following the same score, other times it doesn’t!

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Realistically, it isn’t that bad all the time. If it were, I couldn’t do it every day. But, there are days when it sure feels that bad! Regardless of how it feels, however, the corollaries are too great and too many to ignore. So, while everyone else in the hall is enjoying the program, I’m thinking about the conductor and what he is doing, the responsibilities he is charged with in order to turn individual contribution into melody, harmony, beauty and art.

In the end, it isn’t all that different from what you and I must do in order to take our respective businesses from where they are to where they need to be. The most significant difference may be the fact that far too many of us find ourselves trying to compose and conduct at the same time.

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An automotive service business runs best when its purpose, mission, vision, goals and objectives are understood by everyone involved and all its various and sometimes seemingly disparate systems are aligned. In other words, when everyone is playing off the same sheet music.

It runs best when the technicians are well-trained and capable of at least some degree of self-management, when they know how to do what they’ve been asked to do, when they have to do it and what the finished product should look, feel or sound like. It runs best when everyone knows why they are doing what they are doing, and why they are doing it your way!

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A symphony orchestra demands the same elements are present and aligned, as well. The musicians must be well-trained. They have to know the program, the various pieces of music that will be played that day. They must know and understand the role they will play, the contribution they will make, in order to meet or exceed the wants, needs and expectations of their audience, their clients. And, they must do it all while carefully following the conductor’s lead.

It’s reasonable to assume the members of an orchestra are well-trained. That’s almost a “given.” At the very least, each musician has had to earn an audition and their seat in the orchestra. They understand the role they will play and the contribution they will be asked to make. It’s an integral part of their training, and a prerequisite for the opportunity to perform. And, they understand and respect the conductor’s position as interpreter, guide and director.

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How many times can the same be said about our industry and the people who “play” for us? We don’t have universally accepted standards or licensing for technicians, but we do have certification. How many shops demand or reward it? We don’t have a set of “Generally Accepted Management (or Leadership) Practices” either.

Do we?
Should we?

Consistency of performance and the motorists’ experience cross-country or across the street would certainly be better if we did!

And, in too many cases in too many shops, there is no one on the podium, no one guiding the “orchestra.” The conductor is too busy trying to play too many instruments, too many parts in the orchestra!

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Sure, it’s reasonable to assume that with all that training and experience, the members of the orchestra would and probably could play by themselves and that whatever they played might even be recognizable. But, you have to ask yourself, Would it sound as good? Would it be better with someone standing up front, waving his/her arms, guiding the tempo and interpreting the composer’s vision?

After this season and these seats, I can answer that question. The members of the orchestra are more than capable of following the score. If you listen carefully, you can hear that competency — the bits and pieces of what they are about to play, as they warm up just before the conductor moves to the podium.

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But, all that individual talent, knowledge and ability produces nothing more than noise until the conductor raises that baton and takes control.

I’ve learned this and a lot more at the Disney this season. It has helped me become a better manager, a better leader. But, as much as I’ve learned by attending the actual performance, I’ve learned far more by getting to the concert hall an hour before the concert begins.

That’s when the conductor, the Maestro Victor Vener, comes out to answer questions and share a little bit about the program with those of us who are willing to get there early, little-known facts about the composer and/or the nature of each piece, along with how and why he has chosen the pieces we are about hear.

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It’s during those few minutes before each concert that I’ve discovered an entirely new resource for management and leadership practice and theory. You see, it is here that I have learned it’s the conductor’s responsibility to choose the music, as well as the people who will play it. He gets to interpret what the composer was trying to say, as well as how he tried to say it.

He gets to manage the orchestra as well as lead it, and to lead it as well as manage it. He controls the tempo, the rhythm and to a large degree, the result. And, that even the slightest deviation from the printed score creates and presents a new experience for the audience regardless of how slight that deviation might be or how insignificant it might seem.

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By participating in this pre-performance conversation, I have become a better-educated consumer of the Cal-Phil’s “product offering.” And, by increasing my understanding, I appreciate what they do and how well they do it far more than I did before I was exposed.

By watching the maestro demonstrate the tempo, prepare individual musicians, or their respective sections, for what was coming next … by watching him monitor, measure and direct the level, volume or intensity of what was being played, or what was about to be played…I have a whole new level of understanding of what my responsibilities are as the maestro of Schneider’s Automotive, the conductor of my own little orchestra.

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And, by recognizing the importance of the information available about the afternoon’s performance before it begins, I’d like to believe I’m doing a better job communicating what we are doing and why it’s important to the people who play for me.

More than that, it has caused me to look for more, different and better ways to communicate with my audience, with our patrons — to let them know what we are doing, why we are doing it, how it relates to our performance and why it’s important to the product they will ultimately have the opportunity to enjoy … all as a result of the view from Terrace East.  

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