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You Must Be This Busy To Work Here

Today I got my car washed. I never get my car washed.

But, since Lynnette and I are driving to Fort Worth for the holidays, I thought she might enjoy sitting in a clean car for 10 hours this Saturday. And, I hadn't had it washed or vacuumed since I got it in January. I just don't care that much about a clean car. I'm not that kind of guy.

As I was waiting for the team of folks to finished scrubbing and washing, I noticed something about this particular observation. Apparently, no one was allowed to stand around. If you weren't wiping tires, spraying windshields or cleaning consoles, you needed to be doing something. At this car wash, productivity was the name of the game.

Or at least the appearance of productivity.

When you pay people by the hour, the idea of productivity looms overhead like a wicked thundercloud. Back in my hotel days, we managers had to watch our productivity like hawks. If someone wasn't needed, you were to send them home for the day. Even if they came back two hours later to serve the evening banquet, you were supposed to get them off the clock if something didn't need doing. And, if you could delicately walk the tightrope between serving the most meals with the fewest amount of hours without compromising service standards, you'd be up for a gold star and a promotion soon enough.

The good thing about managing this in a hotel conference setting is that you usually know how many people will come in on a given day. If the sales team has booked 200 for a lunch, you know how many servers and maitre d’s you need so you don't under- or over-schedule.

Not so at the car wash. You can have a rough estimate of how many people might stop by, but you're never all that sure. Certainly some days and times of the years are busier, but you never want to find yourself in a situation where you have too many cars and too few hands scrubbing and waxing.

So, at this place, if you weren't on a car, you needed to be on something. As I waited, I watched as three different people sprayed and wiped off the glass door into the waiting area in less than 15 minutes. Two other people continuously organized and reorganized the collection of sprays and cleaners at the waxing station. And on and on it went. Being busy – or at least looking busy – was important to the management in this place.

Maybe your job is like this, too, even if you're salaried. It's important that you're doing something, so you're told to find something to do, even if it's meaningless. So you shuffle papers, organize cabinets, review reports and any other thing that doesn't really need doing just so you can be doing something. But doing something and doing something meaningful are two different things.

If I ran the car wash and couldn't send people home, I'd want them working, but I'd find the right thing for them to do. I wouldn't wash the glass door so much – I'd wash the handle instead, where lots of bacteria and germs can be found. I'd train people to start conversations with customers who are waiting but don't have anything to read. I'd challenge employees to think of ways we could wash more cars in less time while improving service. I'd get them thinking of things to do while they're not doing anything.

The same challenge may exist at your office. What is it that you can get people to do when they don't have anything to do? Moving one set of papers to the other filing cabinet or sorting paperclips by color isn't what anyone needs to get paid for. But thinking of a better way to follow up with customers or developing a new process to cultivate sales leads is. It improves the overall business and it lets people think and get creative.

Don't just give someone something to do; give them something meaningful to do.

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