We are creatures of our environment


Stories about rotting garbage and table scraps aren't the place you'd expect to find powerful lessons about running your business. However, a story the other day on NPR about food waste in restaurants (about 10% of the food a restaurant buys ends up in landfills) provided this interesting insight:

The hardest part for many restaurants may just be getting the workers to become aware of how much edible food they waste every day. A few years ago, when [Chris Moyer of theNational Restaurant Association] was managing a big chain restaurant, he wanted to show his cooks there were plenty of opportunities to reduce waste. So he took away the garbage can.

"You'd be surprised, once you take away the garbage cans, if people have to ask permission to throw something away how little you throw away," says Moyer. "It was really quite amazing."

Let's put aside for the moment the issue of whether taking away garbage cans demonstrates respect for people. (It doesn't.) What's striking is how behavior changes in response to environmental conditions. If taking away garbage cans results in less food thrown away, what might happen if you took away the comfy chairs in the conference room? Or required that all meetings are stand-up? Most likely they'd end on time or early. (And, in fact, there are plenty of stories about companies doing precisely that.)

What if you rearranged where people sat in an office? I've been working with a company that complains about poor communication and coordination between the various groups involved in the product development process: the R&D and manufacturing engineers get last-minute changes dropped on them by the product marketing team. Perhaps not coincidentally, the marketing team sits at the other end of the building from the engineers. While it wouldn't be a panacea, I guarantee that if they mixed the marketing and engineering teams together, communication would be better.

Many years ago when it was still in start-up mode and cash was tight, the employees at Giro bike helmets asked Jim Gentes, the founder, to install a shower in the office. Gentes was afraid that he'd pay $5000 to put in a shower, and people wouldn't use it that much. So he came up with a simple solution: he put a piece of paper next to the shower showing the cost, and told employees to put their names down when they showered, and calculate the average cost of each shower. In other words, the average cost of the first shower was $5000; the average after two showers was $2500; after three showers, $1667; etc. By making the cost and the usage of the shower, Gentes ensured that people didn't take it for granted, and probably increased the usage, as people were motivated to drive the average cost down.

Think about it: what environmental changes can you make to improve the coordination, collaboration, and effectiveness of your teams?

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