Napkins: An Essay

An essay by Jerry Zubay, owner of Zzest Market, inspired by the Leading with Zing! seminar

Zzest Market in Rochester, Minnesota describes itself as a “market by day, restaurant by night”. Do visit their website, or better yet, visit them if you are in the area.

I cannot get my mind off of the subject that occupied so much of our past couple days (actually I started thinking about this after one of Ari’s presentations in Madison). At this point, I am pretty sure that when I make it to the mountain top, and ask the Supreme Guru “What is the meaning of life?” the answer will have to include why people step over napkins.

Every one of us, and every one we work with, have plenty of napkins on the floor. It is easy to focus on why it is that so many people step over them, instead of simply picking them up. But, you know what? The reality is, for whatever reason, we too just step over some of those napkins ourselves.

I used to work part time for the police dept as a firearms instructor. I had a conversation at the range one day with the Assistant Chief, who was whining about the fact that no one took down their used paper targets and threw them away. I pointed out that the garbage cans were actually quite inconvenient and recommended that he put some garbage cans downrange by the targets. He responded that people were just lazy and would still not throw away their old targets. I tried to explain to him that “won’t” throw away targets was a much different problem than “can’t” throw away targets, and that it was very probable that many of the same people who currently “can’t” throw them away, would, very willingly, throw them away, if they easily could.

That was when it dawned on me that “won’t do it” and “can’t do it” look exactly alike in practice, and, generally even have identical outcomes. But, the solution to each problem is completely different.

Armed with that experience, and listening to the stories throughout our past class, I tried to list why someone would step over a napkin, because the solution cannot be tied to the action. Instead, the solution must be tailored to the reason for that action.

1) They just don’t see them. Yep, I can’t understand it either. I am a pretty observant guy. In my business, I am personally responsible for facilities operation. I constantly monitor if the music is playing at the proper volume; if the computers are all working; if the air conditioning is cool enough; if the freezers are below zero; and if nothing is leaking. That is my job and I make it a practice to always be aware of the details of my surroundings, or, in the words of my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, “You can really see a lot, just by looking.” It drives me crazy when I see something as simple as a burnt out light bulb, because it just looks like no one is paying attention. But, that said, I was really embarrassed when someone in our class asked why a light was burnt out in the men’s bathroom – the bathroom I had used plenty of times – but I never noticed. During the next break, I went into the bathroom and found the four foot fixture, right between the sinks and mirrors, right at eye level, right in the center of the wall, right at the spot where I had frequently paused to wash my hands, was, indeed, burnt out. Damn!?

2) They see them, but, don’t know they are supposed to pick them up.
Some years ago, I was tired of complaints on cold soup. I implemented a procedure where, every two hours, someone would take the temperature of the soups in their soup wells, and write them on a chart. Of course my goal was to serve hot soup (guess where this is going). With the procedure in place for a few days, I looked at the temperature charts and saw that the temperatures were diligently recorded, every two hours, just as I had instructed. Yes, the charts were accurately filled out, reflecting that we were regularly serving soup in the lukewarm 110 to 120 degree range. Frequently, when I am investigating a problem, someone will say “But, everyone knows …” Typically, that includes everyone, except for the person who is actually doing the job. Maybe it’s better for all those things that “go without saying” to just be said.

3) They see them, but, don’t know it is important to pick them up.
This is best illustrated by your story of constructing a European cathedral: when one stone mason was asked what he was doing, he said “laying blocks,” but when another was asked he responded “I’m building a cathedral.” If people are not taught that they are actually building a cathedral, then most of the tasks they do will seem pretty meaningless. I believe that it is only when people understand that they are actually building a cathedral, that is, that every small task is done to help achieve a much greater goal, that they will understand the importance of what may otherwise seem trivial. And, since people are not born with this knowledge, it is up to the leaders to teach them to understand the fact that it’s not a napkin – it’s a piece of a cathedral.

4) They see them, and know it is important to pick them up, but, they are not really sure how, or they are not really sure which napkins to pick up. When I was 15, I had my first job at a Perkins restaurant as a dishwasher. On my first day on the job, all of the cooks were standing around smoking and chatting, and, I joined the crowd. With my hands planted firmly in my pockets, I figured this sure seemed like a pretty good job so far. After a while, one of the cooks pointed to the three compartment sink piled high with pots and pans, and barked at me to start washing them. Full of 15-year-old naivety, I truthfully and honestly explained that I was a “dish” washer, and, those were “pots and pans.” I was sincere in my misunderstanding, and the nice cook was gracious enough to “correct” me – in memorably clear terms. Moral: If you taught the group to pick up dinner napkins, don’t be surprised if they step over cocktail napkins.

5) They see them, and they know it is important to pick them up, and have a clear understanding of how to do it, but, they are just too lazy to pick them up.
It was my responsibility in one of my own restaurants to change the menus in the window display on the sidewalk. It was a tedious and clumsy process, and, I never liked doing it. After one particular menu change, I neglected my part of the job. To my delight, there was nothing said and the sun still rose and the birds still sang. I pretty much stopped changing the menus after that because, after all, it seemed that no one really read them, or no one really cared, or, at the least, if there were a couple changes on the menu, no guest really noticed that the menu in the window was slightly different from the ones we were handing out. This continued for some time until one day I got a handwritten note from one of the waitresses, with letters about three inches high, that said: I’M SICK AND TIRED OF THE CUSTOMERS COMPLAINING THAT THE PRICES IN THE WINDOW ARE DIFFERENT FROM THE PRICES ON THE MENU!! Wow. Who knew? I didn’t think it really mattered. And, maybe we need to talk before someone gets to the point of being “sick and tired.”

6) They see them, know it is important, understand how to and usually do pick them up, but, they are just sick and tired of doing it, they think it’s about time everyone else started to pick them up, and they’re wondering why there are napkins on the floor in the first place. Maybe they have a point: why are there so many napkins on the floor, and, what solution can they provide that will improve it? Maybe the other staff needs to be better trained to pickup their share of napkins. Or, maybe it’s time for a vacation. Or, maybe a change of job, either within the company or completely.

7) They see them, know it’s important, understand how to and do pick up lots and lots of them, but, today, maybe just this once, (or maybe it’s getting to be more of a trend), they really do not feel like picking them up. They tell themselves that they will pick up twice as many tomorrow. Which brings me to my story of the Zingerman’s staff member at the Deli. I was alone and walking into the Deli just some few minutes before closing. A staff member was just inside the front door at the bread stand. I could see through the window that he was diligently working on some paperwork. I grabbed the front door knob and when the door was open no more than a couple inches, he slapped down the pen and looked in my direction waiting for me to enter. He gave me a warm – and instant – greeting. That scene has been replayed in my head a thousand times. That simple act clearly said that I was much more important than whatever he “had to” do. Had he waited just another few seconds for me to actually enter the room, his response would have lost all of it’s special meaning. And, worse, had he waited for me to actually come up to the counter or interrupt him, the entire experience would have been a negative.

My desk is only a few feet from the front door of our restaurant and, on a daily basis, I am diligently doing paperwork while guests enter. Typically, I am feeling overwhelmed, or, I just need one more second, or, this is almost done, or, for some reason, I keep working and ignore them. That’s when the scene at Zingerman’s replays yet again in my head and I hate myself. Maybe some people step over some napkins because, maybe, just maybe, they are human.

But, knowing how badly I wanted this to change, I brought a group of my co-workers with me to Zingerman’s. I thought instead of me coming alone, and getting all pumped up and acquiring yet another scene in my head, a scene I could use to beat myself up after going home and becoming overwhelmed yet again, this time I would start my very own support group. A group who can help point out all the napkins that I am stepping over. A group, with whom, I plan on building a cathedral.

Now, I’m a 50 something owner, who has been in the business for 40+ years, and, about as motivated as it gets. Consider this when you see your minimum wage, high school cashier, stepping over a napkin.