leadership dot #3302: laundry

The geniuses at NASA overcame many of the issues required to put humans into space but one problem went unsolved: that of how to do laundry. Each week, the workout attire from the astronauts becomes so smelly that the clothes are deemed toxic and put out to burn up in the atmosphere. With the anticipated increase in space travel, NASA is working with Procter and Gamble (makers of Tide) to find a way to clean clothes in space instead.

I’m sure that on the list of millions of moving parts, complicated equations, and engineering marvels that mastering laundry fell way down the line, but today its implication shows that even the smallest detail has an impact on the whole. Those pesky “little” problems that you leave unresolved never really go away. Instead of ignoring them, engage others in helping you find a solution (earlier in the process than bringing in P&G now) rather than leaving them hanging, only to be addressed later.

The next time you plan to launch your project — whether into space or here on Earth — think about the astronauts and their dirty clothes. Even rocket scientists need to tend to the details.

Source: NASA, Tide tackle space laundry challenge by the Associated Press in the Telegraph Herald, June 24, 2021, 20A

leadership dot #3301: trajectory

It is tempting — and natural — to look at past behavior as a guide for what will happen next. Professionals pour over data to ascertain trends, scientists make predictions based on replication of experiments, and businesses rely on cyclical behavior to guide ordering. That all makes sense when behavior follows a standard pattern but as we enter a post-pandemic era everyone is grappling with fundamental shifts in how the world works.

It’s no longer reliable to use historical information as a guide for the future. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said: “This is an extraordinarily unusual time. And we really don’t have a template or any experience of a situation like this. We have to be humble about our ability to understand the data.”

Taking circumstances into account is a wise strategy at any time, but even more important in this time of transition. Don’t just block out your 2020 data and act as if everything will return to 2019 levels. We’ve been given a rare opportunity to start a new page of data collection, allowing you to consider what metrics are important to attain and what to measure. What opportunity have the shifts in behavior created (or could) and how can you chart a new trajectory toward success? The path is yours to define with the future unburdened by the past.

leadership dot #3300: lag

Have you noticed that the same pandemic-related items that were in hot demand a few months ago are now being sold at bargain-basement prices? Masks and face shields are on closeout sales. Wipes are plentiful. Home desks are on clearance. Sanitizer is readily available and is so reduced that one store will even give you a rebate of $1 more than you paid!

Companies back-ordered as much as they could get of products that were impossible to stock — without accounting for the delay in arrival. So now, box loads sit idle with demand dried up and the businesses are going to have a negative return on their overzealous inventory acquisition.

It’s all a visible reminder of the interrelatedness of a system and the influence of time. If you make a change to one component (i.e. ordering far more than ever before), you need to account for a lag in the rest of the system to adjust to the change. If you adjust one policy, you should allow enough time for the implications of the alteration to show up. If you implement new initiatives too quickly, you may end up with a backlog of resentment before the positive effects of the change appear.

Those boxes of sanitizer were liquid gold when they were produced and now they are nearly worthless. When you are changing your behavior, don’t go crazy on the front end without accounting for the gap in implementation timing on the back end. How you manage the lag can determine your overall success.

leadership dot #3299: seats

The Muny, St. Louis’ outdoor, professional theater has been a tradition for generations in the city, with many making it a ritual to attend each week during its season. The Muny has a wonderful tradition of providing free seats in the last nine rows of seating for its summer musical theater productions. This practice allows 1400 people to experience a professional, live performance without cost, but the distance from the stage results in more “hearing” than “seeing” of the production.

A foundation chose to honor a Muny regular, Patricia Wolf Gould, with a memorable gift in her honor. Each week, “free seat” patrons are randomly chosen and given seats much closer to the stage. The move enables them to be immersed in the production, rather than watching it from afar, and those who are “Patti’s Pick” are able to hear and see the show from a whole new perspective.

I love how personal this recognition is. It would have been easy for the foundation to endow a scholarship, make a contribution to the theater, or provide some other donation on her behalf but creating the seat upgrade program is a way to honor her legacy as well as her life.

Whether you are recognizing someone in large ways or small, work diligently to craft a tribute that specifically honors the person. Consider what is/was important to them, things they loved, areas where they gave their attention or unique ways that you can extend their influence. Special individuals merit personalized recognition, not a generic accolade.

leadership dot #3298: snapshot

The Major League Baseball game that will be played this summer near the Field of Dreams is about 30 minutes from my house — so I applied to be one of the Game Day workers. As part of the process, we naturally had to fill out an online application and then I was notified that I would be interviewed via Zoom — for five minutes.

It turned out that five was being generous; I was on the call for literally three minutes flat.

I understand that this is a one-day job so it doesn’t require an in-depth assessment but what can you really tell in three minutes, especially when two of the minutes were spent giving me disclaimers: I wouldn’t see the game, had to stand all day, would need to pass a background check, etc.? The interviewer called it a “snapshot conversation” which is one way to describe it but I am hard-pressed to consider its value.

If you are going to go through a complex logistical process (like scheduling an entire week of five-minute interview slots), weigh your time investment against the likely return. Are you truly going to gain a week’s worth of value above and beyond what is written in the application? It’s noble to perform due diligence, but there are times when the risk to act with less information may be prudent. Hitting a single instead of a home run might be enough.

leadership dot #3297: abdication

It seems that Walmart is converting their stores to all or at least majority self-checkout. The last time I was there, no humans were serving as cashiers and apparently that is their plan moving forward.

Debate as you will about the merits of such a move but what is most maddening is that they made this decision without any adjustment in the infrastructure to support it. Thus, there were 14 register lanes that sat idle while 100% of their customers had to queue into the two existing self-checkout sections. Couldn’t they have converted some or all of those “human lanes” before shutting them down?

Adding to the delays is the fact that many of their clientele are not self-checkout adept. Like with TSA, there is an art to processing in the automated world and those who do it frequently become much more efficient. Those who are novices tend to bottleneck the whole process in airports, and similarly in Walmart.

With staffing challenges, pressure to reduce costs, and increased automation, I suspect that Walmart isn’t the only business that plans to pass the workload on to the customer. But if you are in a similar situation — whether it be for self-checkout, self-registrations, self-reporting, or any other function where you’re relying on others to do what you once did, make life easier for everyone and prepare for the transition before you make it. Sudden abdication isn’t a smart service plan.

leadership dot #3296: popsicle

When I was a kid, my favorite item from the Ice Cream Truck (aka The Ding-Ding Man) was the banana popsicle. There was nothing like it for a refreshing treat on a hot summer day.

I recently re-discovered them in the grocery store where they’re sold in bags of 18 for the unbelievably low price of $2.28 — just 12 cents each.

Frozen water and flavoring may be cheap but think of all the businesses that need some fraction of that fraction of a dollar. The company needs to pay the workers who make the popsicles and the central office that hires and pays those workers, industrial equipment, the electric bill, water, freezers, and flavoring. The frozen mixture needed to be formed around sticks, wrapped in cellophane, bagged in plastic — and someone had to pay for all that. It was shipped — via a more costly refrigerated truck — and placed on retail shelves, requiring payment to the drivers and their rig, the stockers, the sellers, and all the infrastructure that surrounds those purchases. How many popsicles did they have to sell to make this a worthwhile venture?

Before you set out to offer a program or service, keep the big picture in mind. Frozen water and banana flavoring may cost next to nothing, but the additional costs to make it a viable product are great. Similarly, it may be tempting for you to offer something that “doesn’t cost anything” in the immediate moment, but unless you can offset the investment of resources in the whole process you may be better off letting someone who can do it at volume take the lead. Sometimes, enjoying the fruit of another’s labor is best.

leadership dot #3295: calm

I’ve recently subscribed to the Calm app that provides a variety of tools to help with meditation, focus, and sleep. One of their tools is Sleep Stories, the adult version of having someone read you a bedtime story like when you were a kid.

I will admit to being quite skeptical that this component would have any value but find myself in la-la land before the ending (or middle) most nights. Then I wake up to a notification: “How did you like the end of the story? We hope you never find out!” — meaning that it accomplished its goal of lulling me to sleep. It’s a subtle reminder that the app is actually working.

Sleep Stories have caused me to think about other tricks and tactics that we use with children that may still have merit with adults. A set bedtime. Countdown calendars that can temper anticipation with patience. Gold stars on a chart for a streak of accomplishments. Eating vegetables before dessert. Playtime outside. Kissing boo-boos (whether they be real or emotional ones).

The next time you’re faced with a dilemma, think back to how a similar situation may have been addressed when you were young and consider trying an adult adaptation of the same technique. You may find that there is nothing childish about its effectiveness.

leadership dot #3294: everyone

I recently went to the customer service counter at Target and the clerk there left before processing my transaction. She held out her scanner and said “I have to go deliver these pick-up orders first.”

It seems nonsensical that the person responsible for staffing the main service desk also is required to leave it. Why would they designate that person — instead of someone without a fixed workstation — to go into the storage area to retrieve orders and then to deliver them outside?

It appears that Target is incentivizing a different audience than in the past and giving priority to those who do not even come into the store. First, the pick-up lanes overtook all the best parking places, then those customers are given preference for service. As more perks go to those who shop only online, more frustrations mount for those who actually come into the store. I wonder whether they are trying to promote doing a “Target run” in person or intentionally encouraging more people to stay in their vehicle and treat the store like a distribution locker?

As you shift your business operations to accommodate emergence from the COVID-cocoon or to provide additional options for your customers, take a step back and consider your overall incentive structure. What are you truly trying to accomplish? Who are your priority people to serve? And then align your resources accordingly rather than spreading them thin. Trying to serve everyone never works out well.

leadership dot #3292: driving force

As part of their sponsorship of an Indianapolis 500 car, HyVee grocery store had the actual vehicle on display. It’s the first time I had seen an official race car up close and was surprised by how incredibly small it is. The seat looks like it would only hold a small child instead of a full-grown adult. I don’t know how they get in!

But what they do manage to fit in is sponsorship announcements. Every square inch of that vehicle is covered with advertisements of the various sponsors — everyone from HyVee to Mountain Dew Zero, Cheetos, Wahlburgers, and more. I am sure there were intricate legal maneuverings to determine the font size and placement of every letter of type on that car, but you certainly know who is the driving force behind it.

Other organizations could follow their lead and likely do a better job of proclaiming and recognizing their sponsors. You certainly don’t have to be as garish and ostentatious as Indy but there may be more public ways of acknowledging those who are powering your organization’s programs and services beyond just a simple line in your annual report. Not every donor wants its name emblazoned on your materials but consider whether there is an appropriate external way for you to show who is providing your fuel.