L-A-S-T or bright spots. You decide.

I’m in line at a local fast food restaurant, having graciously offered to pick up some dinner for Charlie (I had already eaten someplace with more, um, balanced food).

Anyway, I’m patiently sitting at the drive-through window, watching the activity inside as I await my pizza, burrito, and taco sans tomatoes.

My eye is drawn toward a series of four words:


I can see them from my car, but customers inside would have no clue. From where I sit, it appears someone bought fuzzy letters (or cut them from green and red felt) and then glued them above the counter for employees to absorb.

I drove away, pondering. At first, I thought, that’s cool. Reduce customer satisfaction to an acronym, L-A-S-T. That way you encourage employees to listen to what customers say, apologize for any errors, satisfy their requests, and thank them for being customers.

But then I started thinking: that seems like a pretty negative approach. What, did management just give up? Did they say, “look, just focus on the belief that we’re going to screw up, and people will complain, so we’ll have to apologize. Since we largely employ young people who, when faced with an irritated customer, probably won’t know how to handle that kind of situation, let’s put this handy acronym up to remind them.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be happy working for a company that expects me to screw up and, rather than encouraging me to do my best, gives me the tools to manage my screw ups. What a self-fulfilling workplace! “Eh. We screw up all the time. That’s just the way it is.” The norm, then, becomes screwed up customer service. The exception, good service. Who even hopes to excel when the odds are stacked like that?

I’d much rather work for a company that expects good customer service and views screw ups as exceptions. Explain to me what to do IF, not when, I screw up. Don’t be driving home the message that you don’t expect me to excel. Every time I step up to the counter to take someone’s order, I’ll be reminded that screw ups are the norm. In one environment, I’m focused on success; in the other, mistakes. There’s a difference.

Sam Parker, founder of GiveMore.com, has a great little book that sums up this whole concept. It’s brilliant. At 211 degrees, he writes, water is hot. At 212 degrees, it boils, creates steam, and the ability to power a train. Just one degree is all it takes.

So let’s look at this L-A-S-T fast food joint. With just one degree more, they’d be pointed the other way – toward excelling, not screwing up. With one degree more, those faux cheery red and green words above the counter would read something like ODE – One Degree to Excellence or even ODD –One Degree Difference. I’m sure with a little work they could find an even catchier phrase, but you get the idea.

I must admit, I’m liking this train of thought. It makes me think of the Heath brothers (Chip and Dan) and their book Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. They have a great concept that turns L-A-S-T on its head. Their three-step approach is this:

  1. Direct the rider. (That’s the rational part of us.)
  2. Motivate the elephant. (That’s the emotional part of us.)
  3. Shape the path. (That’s our vision.)

The concept is simple. It’s not enough to “direct” the person who controls the elephant he’s riding. That’s fairly easy. That elephant also has a mind and motivation of his own, and you have to find a way to motivate him at the same time as the rider. For good measure, you also need to shape the path, so the rider and the elephant know exactly where they’re headed. Gotta have a goal, a vision, a dream.

Then, and only then, is real change within grasp.

Finally, part of directing the rider is finding the bright spots. And this is where L-A-S-T goes down for good. The Heath brothers suggest we ask the exception question, or “when does the problem we’re fighting NOT happen?” In other words, don’t focus on what we’re doing that causes us to screw up, but focus on what’s NOT screwing up. Where are we succeeding now or where have we succeeded before? What’s working today and how can we do more of it? Not how many times did we screw up today and how can we do less of it?

Luckily, the Heaths provide a recipe for Bright Spots:

  1. Gather information on the issue;
  2. Study the information to find the bright spots, the unusually positive performers;
  3. Be sure to understand the “normal way” things are done;
  4. Study the bright spots to see what they’re doing differently;
  5. Make sure none of them are “exceptional” in any way; and
  6. Find a way to reproduce the practices of the bright spots among other people.

That’s a huge difference from fixating on the screw ups and finding ways to stop doing them. In an environment that’s designed to excel, L-A-S-T certainly doesn’t work as a motivator, but Bright Spots do. Here’s hoping we learn to seek the bright spots and emulate them.

Afterthought: By the way, I have to tell you that on a subsequent trip through that drive-through, I had the most courteous, helpful, pro-active worker handle my order. He was a young kid who obviously will excel at customer service some day. I didn’t get his name but I was compelled to offer him a tip (a $2 winning lottery scratch off ticket I had just played). I was telling Charlie about it when I discovered that he bowls with the manager! Perfect. So we sang that kid’s praises. The last couple of times I’ve driven through (Charlie really likes their food), that kid hasn’t been working. If he moved on for a new job, I’m not a bit surprised.

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