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A Couple of Drops of Oil

January 6, 2015

As a young man in the midwest, I did a lot of manual labor like farm work and welding.  When I became a knowledge worker, I sometimes struggled with the idea of being paid for what I could do with my mind. It wasn’t always visible or apparent that I was doing something.

The following story is one of those gems that has helped me gain insight to many of my life’s situations.  It has helped me adjust to being a knowledge worker and I would like to share it with you.


…During the 1930’s, trains were the primary means of getting goods and materials from the manufacturers to the marketplace.  There were large regional rail yards where men assembled the trains of cars that would carry the raw materials and finished products to their destinations.  In the rail yards they used smaller engines called “switchers” to assemble the cars together in the order that they would be dropped off as the train went made its journey.


In one such yard, one of the switchers had stopped working, as Murphy’s Law would have it, right in the middle of the busiest area of the rail yard, blocking many of the tracks and preventing the workers from putting the trains together, which effectively shut the yard down.  After spending many hours and losing a lot of time (and money) trying to fix it themselves, the yard manager had to call in an expert.


The expert arrived and crawled around the engine for a few minutes to see what the issue was.  Satisfied, he went to his toolbox and drew out an old oil can, went back to the engine, reached underneath the huge machine, and placed a couple of drops of oil in a key place.  Finished, he told the yard manager to start up the engine.  To everyone’s astonishment, it started working again.


The expert turned to the yard manager and said, “That will be 250 dollars.”(about $4500 in today’s currency).  The astonished rail yard manager almost shouted at the man, “Two hundred fifty dollars!  For a couple of drops of oil?  Are you crazy?”  The expert calmly smiled at the man and said, “No. The oil was free. The $250 is for knowing where to put it, so you can get the yard running again.”


One of the key take-aways from this story for me is “The value which we provide is often not proportional to the time, effort, or material which we supply.”  Simply put, the value is in what we know and do with those things.  Many times I’ve been measured (and rewarded) by the number of hours, the dollars charged, or the lines of code or power point slides generated.


As Agile practitioners, we need to keep our eye on the value we provide, not the time or effort we go through to provide it. Sometimes we may need to gently remind our customers of that value we provide as well.


There are many other situations in which I’ve applied this story’s lessons.  I’d like to hear back from you.


Share your thoughts!


Mac Felsing “The Tie Dye Agile Guy” – Agile thought leader, mentor, coach, trainer, tie dye enthusiast


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