My family and I recently had a great experience while out to dinner, and I believe part of the credit goes to a chalkboard.* The food was amazing, the staff was engaging, and everyone felt doted upon. At one point, I looked up and saw a simple but powerful business initiative in action – the good old wall chalkboard. That basic tool, when used wisely, can help any business or home become a better place for people to grow and engage together whether we are interacting in person or remotely.
On the chalkboard at Gastone in Florence, I could see details of the Wi-Fi network, daily specials, operating hours, staff names, and social media hashtags. This is all stuff no one needs to spend time discussing, and therefore every interaction with the staff and the diner becomes a chance to engage on more valuable matters – like how the fish is prepared and why the chef, Carmine, makes it that way.
Any business can find ways to use similar simple tools. Too often, we find ourselves urgently answering the same questions over and over and missing opportunities to focus on what’s important. Certain daily events, tasks, and assignments never change; however, we dedicate a lot of time to discussing their time, place, and the person responsible for their management. Throughout my career, identifying the answers we deliver repeatedly and using visual management to break the cycle of wastefulness have freed up resources and allowed working relationships and collective output to flourish. As we work from home we are less able to interact with our colleagues so electronic dashboards and group task lists can serve the role of a simple chalkboard for all to access.
In running Urnex, I often challenged our Plant Manager to spend a day on the job as if mute or suffering from laryngitis. It was through this experience that he could notice people on our workforce asking the same questions about their job assignments, where to put things, or even when lunch began. This was a golden opportunity to evaluate our signage. I sensed that people were asking because someone was there to answer and because the time spent asking was preferable to heading to their workstations. This “day of silence” exercise led to a list of the questions that people asked, and an initiative to post or improve answers on a label or sign on the factory wall.
If you can’t stand chalkboards, think about it as a giant, well-organized collection of Post-it notes visible from a distance. The goal is to be able to answer questions or clarify a plan by just referencing a sign. Once a silent reply is received enough times, people stop asking and start looking. By moving everyone a step forward without the need for discussion, more time becomes available for solving real problems and for colleagues to interact toward more productive innovations.
The chalkboard at Gastone illustrates the value of these same ideas. Once travel resumes and you find yourself in Florence, visit the restaurant. I believe you will experience the warmth and level of interaction that my family experienced when staff members Chiara and Gaia attended to our table. Just like factory signage, using a publicly accessible shared calendar, or labeling the spot your kids are supposed to return their toys – the restaurant found a way to help its staff focus on creating the best dining experience.
Spend part of your work time not speaking but just listening and taking notes. It may help illustrate the waste in your day. Whether you come up with a way to remind your team about regularly scheduled meetings, provide visitors clear information about where to enter your office, help remind your kids what time they need to be ready to leave for practice or to logon to an online class – visual communication of the basics can make every day smoother and give you time to make every interaction a little richer.
*Note: This turned out to be our family’s “Last Supper” out on the town before Italy imposed its newest COVID-19-related restrictions on October 24, 2020. Wishing everyone a safe and healthy future ahead and hoping we can return to Gastone for another dinner sometime soon.