What we can learn from soup
Back in the days when I was traveling and doing seminars with The Lovely Marianne, we faced the challenge of getting the meeting planners at various hotels to give us what we wanted. We weren't asking for anything ridiculous; we just wanted the meeting room to be set a certain way because we knew what worked best for the people who came to my seminars.
At first, when we were still quite wet behind the ears, TLM would call the meeting coordinator at the hotel and explain what we needed. We quickly learned that this didn't work well because most hotels change meeting coordinators faster than Italy changes Prime Ministers. TLM would get all her ducks in a row with one woman (they were always women), only to call again to confirm everything about a week before our meeting and learn that someone else was now in charge. Oh, and that person knew nothing about our meeting.
So TLM would scramble for paperwork and it nearly always worked out, but not without a certain amount of excess stomach acid.
So she asked me if I could put together a meeting specification that we could send to the soon-to-be-gone meeting coordinators in our future. I loved this idea because I really enjoy thinking things through and writing them down. And with a spec, I could avoid the things that caused me the most heartache in the past. For instance, our spec should have something in there about it being important for our meeting room to have electrical outlets. I learned this the hard way at a cheap hotel in Fall River, Massachusetts. I had set up all my projectors and whatnot, and then walked around the room with the plug end of my orange extension cord, looking for an outlet that didn't exist. When I asked the meeting coordinator about this phenomenon she told me that the Rotary never asked for an outlet in that room, and they met there once a month.
So that was the day I did my seminar without any visual aids.
But about that spec. I've found that most things in life go easier when you tell people who are going to be working for you what you expect of them before you actually hire them.
Can we agree on that?
So my meeting spec was a song of expectation. It went into great detail about the size and shape of the room, the aforementioned electrical supply, where we needed the furniture to be, temperature- and lighting controls. The spec also asked if there was going to a corporate pep rally or a gospel choir whooping it up in the adjacent room on the day of my seminar, and yes, that happened often. You try talking over Hallelujah! for six hours.
I got into such nitty-gritty in my spec that most soon-to-be-gone meeting coordinators told TLM that they had never seen such detail, and that they wished every client would present them with such a spec. This made me quite happy. I even considered mentioning to contractors that they might present potential customers with a spec, explaining what they, the contractors, expected from the customers. And vice-versa. Wouldn't it be interesting if everyone had something in writing that they could all look at, should there be a problem?
Which brings us to the soup.
We usually ordered the Deli Buffet for our guests' lunch. It had something for most everyone and contractors could eat as they walked down the line filling their plates. One forkful for the mouth. One forkful for the plate. All the way down the line. Contractors are amazingly good at this. More than once, the buffet was bare when only half the contractors had munched their way through it, like locusts in a wheat field. TLM would pop her head into the kitchen to let the chef know we needed more food. He would look out and duck back into the kitchen in horror.
I'd stand on the side, preferring not to eat rather than join the scrum. The thing that always struck me was the soup. It arrived with every Deli Buffet and it was always the first item on the line. The contractors would grab a small bowl that sat in a tiny saucer. Each would ladle the hot soup (and it was always hotter than the sun) into the little bowl, making sure to fill the bowl right up to its rim. Hey, it's free soup, right?
Each contractor would then try to balance the steaming soup on its slippery saucer all the way down the line, while stuffing cold cuts into his mouth and onto his plate. I'd stand over there and listen to them say, "Ouch!" and other four-letter words I can't write here.
When they got to the end of the line, most of the soup bowls were only half-full. The contractors would head for their table and inhale what they hadn't eaten along the way and then head back for more.
So in writing my spec for the meeting coordinator, I had this brilliant idea. Why not specify that the soup station should be the last item on the Deli Buffet line? That way, the ravenous lads could make their sandwiches and stuff their faces as they went along and not have to juggle sun-hot soup as they did so.
So into the spec it went.
The phone would ring in The Lovely Marianne's office.
"Mrs. Holohan, we see in your meeting spec that you want the soup last on the line, but that's not how we do it here."
"Well, we always place it first because people always eat their soup before their sandwich. The dessert comes last on line because people always eat dessert last."
So Marianne would explain about the contractors and our experience with culinary mayhem over the years. The meeting coordinators would always listen and agree to what we wanted.
But then came time for lunch and the meeting coordinator who had seen the light was now long gone. The soup was always first. Always. Always. Always. TLM would mention to those bringing out the food while I was talking in the front of the room that they were doing it wrong, but they would just look at her like she was out of her mind. The soup comes first. Always.
So we learned. After a while, we just gave up and let common sense die, as it so often does in real life.
So some advice for you:
If you're going to write a spec for anything, be it an operations manual for employees, a plan for a building, or a layout for a new warehouse, whatever it is, trust me on this. Your spec won't matter because tradition will pummel to death any improvement you're thinking about making. Always.
This we learn from the soup.
Oh, and you know what else we learned from the Deli Buffet? If you give contractors an hour for lunch, they'll finish lunch in 12 minutes and spend the rest of the time at the bar.
But if your audience is engineers, you'd better allow more than an hour for lunch because engineers do not make sandwiches. They build sandwiches. The mustard must spread evenly and to a precise depth out to the edges of the bread. This takes time. The ham must perfectly align with the cheese. This, too, takes time. The order of the food on the plate also matters. They'll move at turtle speed along the Deli Buffet line until each satisfies his or her methodical mind.
Oh, and engineers will always carry their symmetrical sandwiches to their carefully chosen tables and then return for the soup. They'll eat the soup first, of course, and they won't spill a drop. They'll also be sure to let you know that the quality of the food was not up to their standards.
And that there wasn't enough of it.
And you wonder why most contractors and engineers don't get along?