A recipe for efficiency

At 13, I got my first real job.  Sure, I was probably underage; but back then, nobody seemed to care. 

I was a self-described “Head Wrapper” at a quaint bakery café near my childhood home. My sole responsibility was to place freshly sliced (and sometimes still warm) banana bread into food service style “baggies,” then seal them with a logo label indicating the flavor.

It didn’t take long to become proficient at this task, buzzing along at a steady tempo.  Business was good – so good that by midsummer, the demand for banana bread had doubled. 

In August, the owner introduced me to my…replacement: The Cryovac 8600.  This stainless steel workhorse precisely vacuum-sealed plastic film around each slice of bread at an astonishing pace.

Since I was a lowly teenager lacking both a) life insurance and b) hand-eye coordination, I was informed that only my boss would operate the expensive equipment.  “Okay,” I said with a crestfallen nod, comprehending that this sweet, albeit illegal, $5/hour cash gig was coming to a premature end. 

Much to my surprise, he handed me a roll of those same stickers and pointed to the dismount end of “The Beast”.  Relieved, I took my assigned position and unlike Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory, kept up with the conveyor’s assault.  I don’t know if it was a promotion, but I was now “Lead Labeler”.  

What I didn’t know then was that this type of radical change for an established business was somewhat of an anomaly. The antiquated hand-wrapping system wasn’t state-of-the-art, but it worked just fine. “If it ain’t broke…” and all.

For a mom-and-pop café west of Boston, this was a progressive growth strategy, and it shaped my philosophy on embracing change.  Later in my career, I’d inevitably learn about people’s aversion to change. 

Since my entry into the workforce, I’ve reported to many a first day of work, in a variety of industries, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Call it training, orientation, or what is usually is: baptism by fire. Regardless, I was a human ShamWow – eager to absorb all the knowledge splashed my way.

Getting shown the ropes those first days, I tend to notice a dozen procedures that strike me as odd. I chalk it up to my life-long character flaw of questioning authority rather than being any kind of efficiency expert. I can’t help but ask, “What if you moved that trash can between your station and the fry station so that you can both use it without walking halfway across the kitchen?” 

“Huh,” my hair-netted trainer huffs, pondering the absurdity of my question for a moment.  “’Cuz we’ve always done it this way.” 

Discussion over. Next lesson: how to make a BLT in 28 easy steps. 

Like the stern ‘n sassy female chef in Ratatouille, I’m tempted to push him aside and show him how simpler life would be if he just moved the toaster to the left of the station.  At the risk of ruining any chance of camaraderie with my new coworker, I withhold my other “Heloise Helpful Hints.” 

The inefficiency traps are not solely reserved for the food service industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re flipping flapjacks at IHOP or collating copies at Dunder Mifflin – there’s probably a way to do any job faster and better. 

Politicians call inefficiencies “red tape.” Traffic reporters name it “gridlock.”  Corporations know it as the “grind.” As for chefs and soldiers, it’s one big “CF” (hint: the “C” is for Cluster). Whatever you want to call it, it’s all those hurdles that slow down an otherwise simple process.

So why don’t we streamline our efforts? In all likelihood, we’ve become inured to the inefficiencies and suspicious of change. In our homes, rearranging furniture to create better feng shui sounds more like a scam cooked up by Martha Stewart’s long-lost Chinese cousin than a legitimately helpful use of space. Or organizing your office for better “desk ergonomics” sounds more like sales pitch from Herman Miller himself than a recipe for a happier, more productive admin. 

Lo and behold, I get accustomed to the toaster being on the right (aka the wrong) side.  One day, a new recruit arrives, and I’m tasked with schooling him on BLT 101.  “What if you moved the toaster to the left of the station?” he offers.  “Well,” I say, a little peeved at this whippersnapper’s audacity, “’cuz we’ve always done it this way!”

Categories: Management & Leadership