Where, oh where, has common sense gone?

I’m in the McDonald’s drive-thru this morning and as I pull around to pay, I notice the cashier yelling from the first drive-thru window to a guy in a silver Lexus who was pulling away. Somehow he missed the whole concept of stopping at the first window to pay and was on his way straight to the second window (a real go-getter). And, since the two window concept has only been around for oh, I don’t know, at least 15 years…I guess I can understand his confusion. So he slowly backs up, holding his money out of his car window, and pays.


You’d hope that would be the end of the story, but it wasn’t. He pulled away without picking up his food. Absolutely hilarious. And that got me wondering…how is this guy able to afford a Lexus when he can’t figure out the McDonald’s drive-thru? I mean, using a drive-thru is common sense, right? Right? In this case, not only was the process seemingly self-explanatory, it was also well-signed, and the driver received additional verbal assistance. 


But this isn’t about proper drive-thru protocol, it’s about being able to figure stuff out on your own. At work, employees have to balance learning by doing with getting stuff done. They might not want to run to the boss the first time they have a question, but they don’t want to spend hours trying to figure stuff out to the point that they fall way behind. So how can you help an employee struggling with things you think should be common sense?


Encourage them to slow down for a minute and make sure they fully understand what it is they’re working on (something the guy at McDonald’s could have benefited from) including the scope, key deliverables, and input sources. They should look at it both from a granular point of view, and also holistically: how does this fit into the short- and long-term strategic vision of your department? An old technique, but one that often works well, is to have them repeat it back. That not only lets you know they understand, repeating the details also increases the likelihood that they’ll retain the information.


Ask them to think strategically about their approach. If you ask someone on your team why they’re doing something a certain way, their reply shouldn’t be something superficial like "because that’s the way we did it last year." In the spirit of continuous improvement, everyone on your team should think about what they’re trying to accomplish. And, if that’s unclear, they should try to figure it out or ask.


Speaking of figuring it out…employees sometimes throw in the towel too quickly, looking to management to come up with a solution. Although there are times when that’s necessary, encouraging your team members to come up with their own solutions will not only give them a sense of empowerment, but will help them think through the issue, thus increasing the chances of their developing a holistic view of the issue.


So, Mr. Lexus driver, repeat after me: Order meal at menu stop; pay for meal at Window One; pick up meal order at Window Two. Still too complicated? If you’d like to sketch out the process using tools from your Crayola box, feel free.


Are there other tips you’ve found helpful?


Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com).

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  • Shawn Graham

    Great comments!

    @John – I’m convinced some employees are busy at being busy. They spend incredible amounts of time pining over not being able to get their work done and, as a result, they’re not able to get their work done. And, unfortunately, they’re often the same employees who get in at 8:30 and leave at 4:50.

    @Robert – great point. I’ve actually seen more drive-thru window consolidation over the past few years. Krispy Kreme is another one. Of course it would help if the location near my house pulled some of the weeds from around the building. Nothing builds confidence in a business (especially in the food service industry), like a bunch of weeds in the drive-thru.

    @Mel – I like the idea of a strategic architecture. I wrote about Grasshopper.com recently but one of the things I liked the most about their culture was that they had clearly defined core values that were easy to understand. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case with strategic vision, mission, and value proposition.

    @Mark – I agree that activity doesn’t always lead to productivity. I recently wrote about misguided initiative—when someone on your team makes an effort to work on a project or new idea without thinking through how it would align with the strategic plan. As a manager this is frustrating on two fronts 1) his or her time could have been spent on something else and 2) you have to given them negative feedback about taking initiative which, no matter how delicate you are with your delivery, can be very confusing to the recipient.

  • Mark Roberts

    Empowered team members help buyers buy. When employees feel they are accountable to be a part of the solution and not just lob problems to the leaders, many good things happen.

    Market leading companies encourage and empower, Market losers build silos http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordp... and demand compliance to “how we do things around here”.

    Often, they need to hire someone like me to come in and play the role of the heretic; Want to add value to your bottom-line quickly?…Hire a Heretic! http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordp...

    Activity is not productivity.

    As you discussed, slow down and focus on less is more.

    Mark Allen Roberts

  • Mel Blitzer

    Totally agree with the idea of getting employees to think strategically and holistically about the business they are in.

    The holistic point of view of the business which can guide employees in their day to day action to gain results is too often missing. Is there a way that we can ensure that management and staff are on the same page when it comes to the big picture?

    The best way I know is to create a "strategic architecture" that can literally fit on one page so that everyone in the organization understands the critical elements that drive the organization to its future. These strategic elements include vision , mission, markets and customers, the organization's value proposition, its end products and services,its core products and services, its main business process, core competencies , internal support and external supply, its culture, its main challenges and opportunities and its key relationships.

    The trick is to not only identify these elements but to understand how they fit together in supporting the business model. When employees at all levels spend some time engaging in the architecture it is amazing to see how motivated they become when they understand the whole business.

    Mel Blitzer

  • Robert Coop

    Wow, I need to visit McDonald's where you live. In South Georgia half of the "pay" windows are closed with boxes of cups and lids stacked up over the window. Management somewhere had a great idea that just ultimately did not work when it came to staffing and customer convenience. Those are the kinds of ideas that produce a great deal of frustration for employees who settle for "the way the company has always done it".

  • John Agno

    Good thoughts, Shawn. People gravitate toward doing whatever alleviates their anxieties and worries, and they will go to great lengths to avoid discomfort.

    Often, complacency is invisible to managers and leaders, as well as the employees in its grip. You, too, may be complacent and not even realize it. That’s because success produces complacency and, for peace of mind, we often focus on success instead of our failures or gaps.

    This problem is augmented by our tendency to replace a true sense of urgency and purpose with frantic activity and unfocused anxiety—what is a false or misguided urgency.

    When organizations suffer from a false sense of urgency, they experience a great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger and frustration. There’s activity, but little focused determination to win—and to do so as soon as possible.

    With false urgency, you will frequently witness:

    · Running from meeting to meeting

    · Sending lots of emails

    · Writing unnecessary reports

    · Juggling lower priorities

    · Compulsively making lists that are never completed

    The danger here is that participants and observers actually believe their increased activity is productive.