Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Where's the (roast) beef?

My friend Dave Munger is known to be a smart, gentle and reasonable guy. Recently, he was stupefied by an event at his local deli. When he asked for 0.6 lbs. of roast beef, he received a confused stare back from the attendant.  After a bit of silence, Dave pointed to the digital scale and told her that she simply needed to put meat on it until it read 0.6.  “But people usually just ask for a ½ lb. or a ¼ lb.,” she replied. My friend, by his own description, foolishly persisted.  “A ½ lb. is 0.5, right?  So just keep putting meat on until it reads 0.6.” 

She dutifully loaded the meat on the scale, “That isn’t even going to get you one slice, sir.” He saw that the scale read 0.08 and thought, “These folks work with a decimal scale all day long and still have no understanding of how the decimal system actually works.”

At first glance, this appears to be just another story of shoddy customer service. But it is also a human story, if you put yourself in the shoes of the person behind the counter. Working with a digital scale you don’t understand results in one embarrassing customer interaction after another. Now that’s what I call soul-killing work.

As a supervisor, manager or leader, your job is to identify and draw out the good that is in most every person.  Do you believe that people actually want to fail?  Do you believe that they want to feel embarrassment in front of a customer? Or do you believe that they really want to do a good job and deliver value to their teammates and customers? 

If you agree that most people have the desire to do well, then you’ll make the personal commitment to invest in them and in their success.  It might be as easy as following up on Dave’s insight. In this case, a rudimentary exercise in the basics of the decimal system might just unlock more potential in someone than you could imagine.  You might ensoul someone by improving their skills and lowering the number of hard customer interactions they face daily.


  1. Good post, and good idea about the exercise. I think the trick would be doing it without creating resentment (e.g. among the many employees who do understand the decimal system). One other thing I've noticed about this deli counter is that the employees will often ask for two or three orders at a time, then forget your order (e.g. "would you like some cheddar cheese with that roast beef" and later "how much roast beef did you want again?" -- or worse, giving you a pound instead of a half-pound and asking "is that okay?").

    I've been other places where employees can easily handle 3 or 4 orders at a time, so clearly these workers need to be trained in a system to remember and accurately process multiple orders. It might actually make their jobs more interesting: They could use keeping track of three orders at once like a mini-brain teaser.

  2. Dave - Part of being a solid manager is ensure that development is first of all for the benefit of the individual. When you start with that in mind, the company is sure to benefit and the format will ensure that someone doesn't feel singled-out. As you note, it doesn't make sense to make everyone do training on element of a job unless everyone has issues that need to be addressed.

    I love your idea of the mini-brain teaser, because that can be done as a group event and can be fun to do. Years ago, I met with my 'warehouse/counter' folks for a breakfast at the nearby '2 eggs, livermush and potatoes' place once a week. We created a game using flash cards called, 'Stump the Counter Guy' because our customers would come to the counter and say things like, "I need more of that green tile that I picked-up for Mrs. Smith's house last month." So the idea of the game was to go around the circle and determine the best way to sort through the customer's hints in order to get the order correct 100% of the time. We had a blast doing it and I believe it made our team very strong at the counter.