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Zambia is a world away from Dallas. Since I’m a construction supply guy, of course I was interested in the hand-made blocks drying in the sun and the dozen men who all afternoon hand mixed concrete for the driveway at Arise Africa’snew complex. With intermittent electricity, I was intrigued by the solar panels and geezers (water heaters), inverter and back-up generator system called upon daily. Arise Africa is a wonderful Christian ministry serving, feeding and loving hundreds of school children in the capital city of Lusaka.Everyone walks everywhere in this city of two and a half million, even Arise’s trusted driver of the “White Elephant”, their oversized Toyota. After a long day of vegetable runs, and shuffling kids to doctors and staff to schools, Abraham just shrugs off his hour long walk home in the dark. He parks at the Arise Home, an orphanage which is protected by a wall fence and electrified alarm wires.

We were warned that Africans viewed time very differently from us. As we drove past the funeral procession heading to Leopard Hill, Brenda explained that the event would last three full days. No doubt, life is hard in Zambia. Though we share some of the same hurts and pains, where did these poor kids we met seem to find such joy in the midst of hunger, flimsy shelters, malaria, HIV, and worn out shoes?

Surprisingly, what a relief for us Americans to slow down to the rhythm of African life! Their peace, sense of community, and faith in Christ was so real, tangible and infectious. When they thanked God in prayer for the simple things of life (and for life itself), they meant it. After our jet-lagged return home, I wanted so desperately to hold onto those same feelings. But it only took a week – with deadlines, complaints, bills and worries – before my self-inflicted American stresses overwhelmed. Did it really drift away so quickly? How can I recapture what the Zambian staff at Arise has figured out in the face of true hardship?

You may be wondering what this has to do with lumber, architectural millwork or homebuilding in Dallas Texas? Somewhat by accident, or providence I guess, I picked up a new set of eyes on our family journey – and Zambia gave me a glimpse of a different perspective on life, a different lens through which to view our culture, our industry and our business.

And what I see is that we are seriously stressed out and overloaded – with little to no margin in our lives! Business is good in our industry right now and yet we’re not content. Yes, there is a labor shortage for sure. We are all under-staffed and over-committed, we make excuses and blame others. Entitled and impatient, we seem to be robbing the joy out of a beautiful and honorable profession – providing comfort, security and shelter. What is wrong with us?

As the Great Recession was hitting Dallas in 2008, I recall attending a lecture by Dr. Richard A. Swenson, the author of Margin – Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Burned out at the time, I was lured in by the title. In that book, he defined “margin” by contrast:

  • Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy.
  • Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink.
  • Marginless is hurry; margin is calm.
  • Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.
  • Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture. (at least in America)
  • Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.

Margin is not just an individual battle, but also an organizational one. To keep all of our promises to our customers, we have to be very careful what we promise. Sometimes that means saying no and being brutally honest about our limitations. This is a critical component of our new OTIF (On Time In Full) initiative at Davis-Hawn – striving to reliably keep all our promises.

It is sometimes so hard to resist the temptation to tell folks what we think they want to hear. But without our honest communication about real lead-times, smooth job scheduling becomes impossible for our customers. As we all know, the domino effect of broken promises in construction projects is not pretty, and is so frustrating.

So here’s to our battle for margin! Our prayers are with you for true peace, joy and margin in your life, and for your family and your business.