Management

The American View: Custer’s Last Sandwich

Generations of young businesspeople have been indoctrinated to believe that ‘management’ is the opposite of ‘leadership.’ Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that this is a baffling misunderstanding of what management is and how it works in the business world.

The concept of ‘management’ seems to get sneered at a lot like it was some sort of communicable social disease. I blame business school types for this disparagement. It’s been trendy for the last twenty years to repeat the myth that ‘management’ equals ‘failed leadership’. That’s an insane position since management is a crucial operations control function. You can’t run a complex business without it.

This came to mind yesterday over lunch. Or, rather, while waiting to get my lunch from the fast-casual deli down the street.

For context, us Texans tend to have lunch around 11 or 11.30 rather than noon. We’re an hour behind the East Coast. We try to synchronize our schedules with folks in NYC and DC because it’s extremely rude to call a meeting in the middle of co-worker’s lunch break. I happened to be running late, which is why I strolled into the deli around 12.10, an hour into their traditional ‘lunch rush’ period.

This place has implemented several process improvements to reduce the chaos during ‘rush’ over the year that I’ve been eating there. They implemented a single queue, for example, for people waiting to order. When you order, you get your drink at the till along with a card. You find an empty table, put your card on a holder, and wait. A staff member brings your food out based on your posted card. It’s a reasonably efficient system … when everything needed to sustain it is in place.

Waiter and waitress holding a serving tray with glass of cocktail Let’s be frank: ‘everything’ in this situation means ‘trained staff.'

During this trip, I noticed that the demi seemed to have gotten slammed during the first half of lunch rush. The dine-in queue had 17 people ahead of me waiting to order, and there were only two cashiers open to handle them (down from the normal three). The take-away and deliver driver queue had two cashiers all on its own, and they were so busy that they weren’t taking any dine-in orders like they normally do.

More interesting, I noticed that the dining area was saturated with plates and trash. As I left the till, there were only two empty tables available. As I waited for my BLT, I noticed that almost all of 33 tables in the common area were either occupied or covered in a previous diner’s food debris. There was only a single clean table left for new diners.

Curious, I watched the staff run the floor. There was only one worker running plates from the kitchen to the tables. The manager alternated between coaching the till workers, monitoring the kitchen, and delivering food. The 17 people who’d been ahead of me in line claimed the remaining clean tables. There were another 21 diners who had joined the queue behind me, all looking bored and impatient who had nowhere to sit.

As I watched, the delivery person took three more meals out and returned without ever policing up a single dish. It wasn’t until the last clean table was taken and a family with a loudly-whinging toddler had to clear a space for themselves that the delivery worker started clearing plates. All the while, the manager watched the dining area like a hawk, keeping his delivery person focused exclusively on getting food out. They both watched the furious family bus a table right in front of them before doing anything about the mess.

Dining table after big meal at restaurantIt took approximately a minute to pick up a meal, get it to the right diner, and get back to the kitchen for the next delivery. Looking at it, it would have taken about 2-4 minutes to clear a two-person table effectively. 

That moment, I thought, delightfully illustrated the value of ‘management.’ The poor guy running the deli – let’s call him Bob – clearly had standardised processes and trained personnel. It was clear that Bob knew the deli’s standard processes for taking orders, preparing food, delivering meals, and clearing the dining area so that the deli met corporate standards for speed, quality, and cleanliness.

It’s important to point out that these people weren’t idiots. I’d seen them operate many times before. They’d always managed to operate competently. ON this particular day, they appeared to be running the place poorly, even though everyone that I could see was task-focused and moving swiftly. So, what made this particular day different?

My first hypothesis was that they were experiencing significantly greater-than-usual load on the take-away front. I saw three phone-in orders and five delivery drivers cycle through while I was waiting to order. This would explain why there were two tills running non-stop on the take-away line and no mutual-support for dine-in.

My second hypothesis was that the deli was down at least one floor worker (if not more). Normally, I’d expect to see two or three people delivering food and bussing tables. On this trip, there was just the one. With some occasional backup from Bob.

Based on that, I suspect that Bob had found himself in a no-win situation. He and his staff knew how to handle large volumes of dine-in customers. The floor staff probably had a rhythm where one worker would deliver food and one worker would bus tables while the third worker helped the manager sort the ready plates as they came piecemeal [1] out of the kitchen. With that distribution of labour, they could effectively cycle the diners through without making anyone wait overlong. Bob could watch out for potential trouble, and then pre-emptively redirect people to head off problems from manifesting. You know … management.

Anxiety is creeping inEveryone wants to be the jet-setting celebrity CEO. Odd how few people want to be the over-stressed and under-appreciated line manager. 

On this particular day, though, Bob was really earning his paycheque. He was under-resources and over-burdened, a combination that meant that there was no possible way that he could achieve or maintain normal performance standards. By some stroke of bad luck, his team was guaranteed to fail; the only question was how they’d fail. Realizing that, Bob looked at all the factors in-play, gauged his people’s ability to perform under the circumstances, and decided to emphasize speedy order-taking and food-delivery over environmental maintenance and customer satisfaction.

Looking at it through Bob’s eyes, that made perfect sense. Yes, he was likely to frustrate some customers. The first family to discover that there were no clean tables might swear off the deli and not come back. That would be a preventable loss … but it was better to lose one or two customers than lost the dozens of super-rushed businesspeople who needed to get their food quickly and race back to the office. Or, worse, alienate some of the even-more-rushed lunch delivery drivers who served customers who wouldn’t normally dine-in at all. Or who placed large catering orders for an entire office.

Bob weighed the risks and made a rational, pragmatic, tactical decision. That’s what real management is all about. Despite all the bloviating that MBAs and b-school instructors like to engage in, ‘leadership’ (as a concept) is not inherently superior to ‘management’ (also as a concept). They’re two functions that all people holding authority needs to excel in. Whereas ‘leadership’ tends to be more about motivation, morale, and strategic direction, ‘management’ is often far more about operations and resource control.

Bob’s performance was proof of that. His people didn’t need rousing speeches, radical new processes, or new strategic goals. They needed moment-by-moment optimization and some shrewd risk management decisions in order to get their crew out of the angry customer danger zone with the least amount of self-inflicted brand damage.

Businessman shopping online is reporting about a problem with his credit cardThere’s something about a food service establishment that empowers customers to act absolutely vile towards the service staff. 

On the whole, I think Bob made the right call. The 39 of us dine-in customers all got fed quickly. The phone-in and delivery orders were out the door within a few minutes of the drivers’ arrival. Everyone’s order appeared to be correct. I got back to work on time. More importantly, the majority of customers in the deli that day probably didn’t realize what was happening or take any real notice. Only one family seemed visibly upset by the mess, and two tables got cleared before the next guest needed to be seated. Call it ‘acceptable losses.’

A less-savvy manager would probably have ticked off a lot more people and possibly done lasting damage to the store’s economic viability. Had Bob not addressed the core problems, the commotion from the rising number of upset diners would have intruded into both the order queue and the customers with food until the mess became everyone’s problem. Instead of three upset people, it could have turned into wall-to-wall discontent for fifty. That would have had lasting repercussions. So … I’d say that Bob made the best call that he could given the totality of circumstances.

The dictionary definition of ‘manage’ after all is ‘to bring about or to succeed in to bring about or succeed in accomplishing, sometimes despite difficulty or hardship.’ Sounds spot-on in this case … and the right tactic for salvage a bad day at the workplace.


[1] Pun intended. I do not apologise.

Title Allusions: Brian W. Dippie, Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1994 book)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger

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