• A Coffee Dichotomy

    Mar 01, 2012

    By Todd Nelson

    Two different coffee shop experiences point to a leadership lesson: Set the tone from the top with your actions-not just your words.

    pg42_column-todd-nelsonOn a recent trip, I was grabbing some coffee at a national chain bagel restaurant, and it was taking quite some time to complete my order (just coffee-no fancy cappuccino or double mocha latte). The restaurant employed fancy technology and management approaches: wireless headsets, electronic ordering software, even a triage system for orders.

    Yet, while I continued to wait for my coffee, I noticed that some of the staff were standing around chatting, as if they were also stuck in wait mode.

    The manager proudly told me that the restaurant's employees were specialized: one person took orders, one handled drinks, one prepared food, and one served as cashier. There was no cross training, and the manager did not encourage staff to help each other out. So orders often got delayed in the queue-and customers had to wait-if any of the specialized staff fell behind.

    A Pleasant Contrast

    In contrast, one of my favorite coffee shops is a locally owned café in a New York airport. This shop does not have a lot of fancy technology, yet employees provide quick, accurate service even though the store is usually very busy. What's the difference? Is it hiring, training, technology, or operational redesign for better workflow? Did the shop train all of its people to be Black Belts in coffee?

    Training seems to be one difference. All the employees know how to take care of whatever customers need, from taking to filling to paying for orders. However, another major difference is the tone from the top. The manager at the airport café periodically works side by side with her employees, which helps her maintain a pulse on what works and what doesn't-and make adjustments as needed. The manager also believes in her staff and teaches them to learn all parts of the operation before they can work independently. Plus, the manager obviously has fun on the job and has instilled in her staff a sense of pride and joy in work. For example, the restaurant celebrates staff birthdays-visibly-with balloons, party hats, and signs: "Stop for a cup of Jamaican Me Crazy, and wish me a Happy Birthday."

    The Tone from the Top

    The dichotomy between these two coffee experiences got me thinking about the messages we are sending as healthcare leaders. What is our "Tone from the Top?" One organization that is getting it right: Sharp HealthCare in San Diego. All leaders-managers and above-attend quarterly leadership development meetings, during which the CEO gives a State of the Sharp address that includes an update on the health system's performance report card. The CEO gives a similar address once a year to all Sharp employees at an all-staff assembly. The health system rewards high-performing staff with annual recognition awards that align with the Sharp mission and strategic pillars.

    The lesson from the road: Set the tone, not just in words, but in your actions. 

    Todd Nelson is technical director for senior financial executives/accounting, HFMA, and a former hospital CFO (tnelson@hfma.org).