Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where's my napkin?

During a three-month project in Detroit, I ate at the same lunch place every day.

Towards the end of my stay, the older woman who worked the cash register retired, and the owner filled in for several weeks while they looked for a replacement.

Under the first day of the new cash register regime, I got back to my desk with my lunch and discovered: no napkins in my bag. The woman always put in three napkins, but the owner didn't know this.

Now, there is a pile of napkins sitting on the counter, so it isn't obvious who ought to be putting them in the bag. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect the customers to take napkins themselves.

No one ever told the woman to put napkins in the bags with the lunch - clearly, since the owner didn't know she had been doing it.

And when she left, there was no written procedure for her replacement to follow, so this small courtesy got lost. (Until a customer gently told the owner on three separate occasions.)

A trivial example, perhaps, of tacit knowledge. It is hard for a boss to capture this knowledge. One way to get started is to rotate employees around to work other jobs under instruction.

What are the napkin-equivalents in your organization?

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