July 29, 2019
In our family, we had the Clean Your Plate Club. In hindsight, eating everything on our plate all the time might not have been the best idea from a dietary perspective. Maintaining a healthy weight continues to be a struggle for me to this day. But from a discipline perspective, the lesson of cleaning my plate stuck.
As a kid, I never understood how leaving food on my plate meant that somebody in China was going to go hungry. But I learned the lesson: don’t waste food; don’t take more than you’re going to eat.
There were nights when I didn’t particularly care for what was being served for dinner, but I knew I’d need to eat it. (I didn’t know what a short-order-cook was until I was an adult, even though my mom would often remind us that she wasn’t one.) I also knew I’d have to finish what I took because those were the rules. Everybody might not have left the dinner table happy, but everybody left the table fed.
In business, I know not to waste things. It’s not only irresponsible and sets a bad example for our people, but it’s costly and inefficient. The lesson is simple: Don’t waste.
At the dinner table you could see if food was left on your plate. It’s not so easy in business where some of the things being wasted are intangible.
In business, not wasting things includes not wasting people’s time by showing up late for appointments. It means showing up on time and prepared. It also means not scheduling unnecessary meetings where wasted time is multiplied by the number of people in the meeting.
As it turns out, some people have made a career out of this concept. They call it Lean Six Sigma. I’m thinking about starting my own management concept and calling it Clean Your Plate Management.
In our family, everyone had a job to do at dinner time, and while none of these jobs were glamorous, they were all necessary. Set the table, clear the table, wash the dishes, sweep the floor, take out the garbage. We did the jobs whether we liked them or not—because they were all necessary, and because that’s what was expected of us.
Later in life, I realized that those jobs taught me some valuable life lessons—take responsibility for your work; things go better when we work as a team; whining doesn’t make the job any easier or any faster.
It’s no different in business. Some jobs just are not fun to do, but they need to be done anyway. Some are boring or may seem beneath us because of our education or the title we happen to hold. In these cases, what we sometimes really need to make the job go better is a second helping of humility.
Perhaps the most important lesson those dinner time jobs taught us was that our job was to serve, not to be served. And there are significant rewards in that, even if we didn’t realize them at the time.