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We’ll come to you.

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 (