Wednesday, February 18, 2009

That Thing You Do

Thinking about Clyph's blog on terrible experiences as a customer, especially in that sad environment known as fast food...
Neither of us has to supervise employees any longer, thank heaven. How do you get low-quality people in a high-turnover situation, destabilized by recurring personal dramas, to commit, to care, to take pride in the task at hand? If hell is other people, being in the position of mid-level manager is like herding mentally challenged cats, for eternity, in that hell. How does a teacher motivate students who are only there because it's compulsory, or lead people in retail who have no stake, economic or personal, in the endeavor?
In my Army job, our small all-military section each week did more than twice the work of the 60 civilians in the section next door. And errors were not acceptable (I made one small one, and got skinned for it). They had places like Alaska to send you if your attitude/performance slipped. Two guys across the hall found that out the hard way. But if there are no serious consequences, or as manager you have no authority (just lots of responsibility!), things aren't going to go well for your customers.
Whole Foods and Wegman's, the premier grocery chains, have a magic formula that works for them: employees first, everyone else second. Sounds like heresy, doesn't it? And it only works in such high-quality enterprises, I would guess. But trust, support, and expectations flow equally between management and employee -- when did you last see that in your life? -- so it works out. Someone who loves to come to work is going to love that customer.
When we were in Italy, I was amazed at what I observed in people at their work (no, not that they're all exceptionally good looking): competence, confidence, and impeccable manners. Jobs are hard to find there; you must rely on family and connections. So one is held accountable by a network of people; you are not anonymous and must maintain high standards in your occupation, however humble. Deep pride instead of cheap arrogance; regard for quality permeates the culture. So it's a question of shared and deeply internalized values: "it takes a village" instead of atomized individualism lost in short-term self-gratification (thanks, Reagan revolution).

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