While conducting a business transformation on driving bottom line performance a few years ago for department managers in a chain of supermarkets, I had an interesting experience. One of the participants was a rather elderly and somewhat crusty Bakery Manager. His name was Lynn and at the first session he introduced himself as having been a bakery manager for longer than most of the other attendees had been alive. I took his unusual statement to mean that because of his experience he was unlikely to learn any new tricks or techniques about performance at any workshop, especially one facilitated by me.
You Can’t Teach A Old Dog New Tricks
Over the course of a couple of sessions, Lynn participated just enough to stay out of trouble with his boss, but not enough to gain much advantage as a manager. After the second session he told me privately that with his considerable experience as a manager he didn’t need to attend the sessions, but that he was being forced to attend. He told me, “You know old dogs can’t be taught new tricks. Well, I’m that old dog.” I thought at the time that he was trying to put me on notice that I should back off in trying to change his managerial style.
Lynn’s statement motivated me to look for a way to get his attention so he could benefit from the workshop experience. That’s when I concocted an experiment that not only taught him and his fellow managers a valuable lesson, but also me as well.
In the workshop I asked Lynn if he would help me conduct a “psychological experiment.” Before he could say no, two of his bosses were nodding affirmatively. Truthfully, I had set that reaction up in advance. Shame on me!
With Lynn obviously very reluctant to hear my proposal, I nonetheless pushed on. I told him that the experiment was to test the power of a graph, or scorecard, to motivate hourly employees to change their behavior. I explained that I would help him create a separate scorecard for each of his employees who worked the bakery counter on Saturdays. The scorecards would have the person’s name at the top, and across the bottom x-axis of the graph would be the dates of the next six Saturdays. Up the vertical y-axis would be numbers from 1 to 20.
Driving Results To Increase Profits
His employees would be instructed that each time they mentioned the words “chocolate chip cookie” to any customer in any way on Saturday they could put a mark or dot for that date progressing up from 1 mention of chocolate chip cookie to as many as 20 mentions. The measurement would be voluntary, because about one person in five typically doesn’t like to participate in such exercises that require competition. We would be happy to deal with the four out of five employees who find such exercises fun and exciting. The scorecards would be posted in the bakery back room and employees would be encouraged to keep their scorecard up to date as often as they could during the day. The experiment would use an honor system, where marking scorecards accurately would be up to the employees. Lynn’s responsibility would be to explain the exercise to the employees, have a positive attitude toward the exercise, and, of course, lead by example, because he needed a scorecard too.
At the next two transformation sessions Lynn gave brief progress reports on the project, but didn’t elaborate very much. I became worried that the experiment wouldn’t work and that Lynn might miss the point of it. But those fears were forgotten when Lynn returned to the last session and exclaimed, “Did you know that it’s possible to sell too many chocolate chip cookies?”
Lynn explained that by the second Saturday most of his employees really got into the exercise. It became a Badge of Honor to be recognized as the employee with the highest number of chocolate chip cookie mentions each week. Lynn’s assistant manager had a badge made at a local mall that said, “Chocolate Chip Cookie Champion.” The person with the highest mentions each Saturday got to wear the Champion badge during the following week, which further intensified the competition. Isn’t it interesting how a simple badge can create so much excitement? During the week his employees plotted what they were going to do and how they were going to get the most mentions. Lynn said that he had to adjust the rules because people “were taking unfair advantage.” One employee got on the store PA and mentioned chocolate chip cookies, then walked around the store counting how many customers must have heard her announcement, trying to claim those mentions. Another employee stopped in the middle of taking a cake decorating order and said, “Oh, by the way we sell chocolate chip cookies. Now how do you spell your son’s name?”
Apparently the competition got so intense and the bakery was selling so many cookies that the ovens were consumed with baking cookies, at the expense of the other products that needed oven time. That’s why Lynn exclaimed, “It’s possible to sell too many chocolate chip cookies.”
As a facilitator it was fascinating to see the change in Lynn’s attitude over the six session series of workshops. The crusty Bakery Manager became a champion of measuring, providing instant feedback, and healthy competition. He even told me in the last session that he had “learned a ton of new stuff.”
So how did Lynn’s cookie sales go? In his final report he explained that for as long as he could remember his bakery had sold about 15 dozen chocolate chip cookies on an average Saturday. (Actually, for a bakery the size he managed, 15 dozen is at best only a fair result, so I’m told.) The first Saturday of the project the bakery sold 27 dozen. The second Saturday they sold 36 dozen. The third Saturday they sold 67 dozen. The fourth Saturday they sold 117 dozen. And on the fifth Saturday they broke the bank, or perhaps the ovens, with 157 dozen chocolate chip cookies!
Increasing Profits 10X
The improvement over a month was a ten times increase. How did this happen? Providing frequent feedback to people who otherwise had not much incentive to suggestive sell cookies caused the incredible results. The personalized scorecards each employee had in the back room provided a method to measure performance. Thomas S. Monson once said, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
As Lynn was leaving the last session I asked him, “Well, was this experience worth it?”
With a slight smile on his face Lynn replied, “Maybe it’s possible to teach an old dog a thing or two. Thanks for your help.”