Skip to content

A Dish Disaster: The Importance of Communicating Purpose

When people understand the "why" behind the work they are doing, they are more effective. This is as true in the office as it is on a warehouse floor or in a restaurant.

When the "why" is unclear things tend to break down.

Dish Disaster-1

Some years ago, maybe a decade now, I saw this truth play out in a spectacular way, and it has stuck with me ever since. 

At the time, I was a regular worker at a community breakfast. This was a free breakfast that was provided twice a month in the basement of a church in an economically depressed neighborhood. Each week 150 to 200 people would visit us from the neighborhood to enjoy pancakes, eggs, grits and bacon.

I often ran the dishwasher with a guy named Larry. There were no where near 200 dishes available, so by the middle of the breakfast hours we always had a lot of dishes to run through that dishwasher. I remember every week, at peak dish chaos, Larry would ask jokingly, “are we winning or losing?” We would leave that kitchen exhausted.

One week, though, when the dishes should have been flying, we had suddenly "caught up." Right when things should have been at their worst.

Larry commented that it must be a slow day, which just didn’t seem right to me. So, I took a walk out to the dining room to see what was going on.

I walked out just as a teenager, one of the volunteers from a youth group that joined us that day, was carrying a folding table from the utility closet, across the kitchen over to the dish scraping station.

Our dishwasher was very old. If you didn’t pre-scrape the food off the dishes really well, they had to go through again. So, we typically set up volunteers in a corner of the dining room to scrape and rinse the dishes before we ran them through the dishwasher. Someone had apparently told the teenagers who were running that station what their job was to "scrape the dishes."

So that's what they were doing ... scraping dishes and piling them up on the table. It had not dawned on them to bring the dishes to us at the dishwasher. So, there were piles of dishes on every inch of their station. They had run out of room. And, being "resourceful," they went to the utility closet to get themselves another folding table to create more space to pile up more dishes.

I am certain that there is a deep truth here about adolescent psychology and how smart kids can sometimes be completely clueless. But, for me, this was the perfect example of how things break down when people know "what" they are supposed to do but not “why.”

After that day, I always gave the dish scrapers their “chat-in” myself. And I always explained that their job was to get scraped plates to the dishwasher as quickly as possible so they could be washed and reused. We never had that problem again.

As obvious as it seems, the teen volunteers did not understand why they were doing what they were doing. They did not understand the purpose within a bigger picture. The system broke down spectacularly. Not because they weren't trying to do a good job or because they weren't resourceful, but merely because they did not understand the bigger picture - the purpose. 

In my experience, this story happens every day in offices, stores, warehouses, plants and restaurants. Eager employees are following the script until unexpected situations arise. They react as best they can, without any clear sense of the big picture to guide their choices or actions. 

It's important to recognize that the solution isn’t to micromanage them, going out regularly to remind them to bring the dishes in. Micromanaging is demoralizing and often just not realistic in the real world where thousands of employees have to make thousands of unsupervised decisions every day. All of those decisions eventually add up to some sort of outcome for the company. It's up to us to determine whether that outcome is intended or unintended.

Telling people why they are doing what they are doing, along with a little training, is a lot more likely to get the intended outcome. Because, once they know "why", they know "why." All the eager resourcefulness gets channeled into doing a better job of delivering on the purpose of the work. And when that happens, the best thing to do is to get out of their way and let them do their thing.

Proprioceptive helps growing companies turn strategic ideas into operational behaviors via analytics, communications and middle-leader training. Shoot me a note at to discuss how we can help activate your strategic ideas.