Record sales when short staffed – a story about bravery, vision, and true leadership

I apologize for my recent “blog silence”!  Some of you already know that my wife and I recently moved from Orlando to Hendersonville, NC, and packing, driving, and unpacking have taken up a bunch of my time (and provided some great customer service stories, but those will have to wait)!  We’re quasi settled now, and I hope that today’s post was worth the wait!

It’s a story about a leader who works in the theme park industry and what he did to make it (quite successfully) through a busy spring break season.  He sent me the following email, and graciously agreed to allow me to share it with you.


I’m just going to jump right into this: I just completed the most rewarding and fun week of work I’ve had in a long while, and it was during peak season! Sorry for the long book of an email, but I must tell all!

Going into this Spring Break season I knew first hand we were going to be short handed in the staffing department of the operation. Those who we did have on the roster would be pushed harder to make up for it, and it would be up to us as leaders in the venue to ensure they are given 200% support, encouragement, and engagement for their efforts.

In our unit we have our primary restaurant and a handful of smaller locations. As my expertise lies in food carts I’ve spent the past year improving that part of the operation, but spent very little time in the main restaurant. As the scheduler I knew we did not have the staff to operate at full capacity during Spring Break (four queue lines). As a former manager I knew the expectation was that we run four lines regardless, no matter the situation. Those two concepts don’t mix well and it was going to be ugly.

Sunday and Monday I spent overseeing our employee grill while also writing the schedules I had to do for the week. Since the grill requires the least amount of attention and is located by the office I can do both at once. As I was leaving for the day Monday I heard that the operation in our main restaurant crashed and burned. Our staff was supplemented with a group of volunteers to help out (but who have very little experience.) They were given very little direction and despite the lack of staff our management team pushed four lines. When the volunteers left we had three lines opened with roughly six team members. That’s about 25% the amount of staff I believe it takes to run a line at max efficiency. Needless to say, this was not a good start to the week for us. Employees were very upset, there was a lack of leadership presence, and sales were not exactly stellar despite the efforts of the team.

Ok, now that the stage is set, let’s get to the fun part!

I come into work Tuesday knowing I should be finishing my schedules, however the part of me that is passionate about leadership and employee satisfaction refused to allow the operation to run as it did Monday. So for the first time ever, I volunteered to run the operation within our main restaurant. I did not know the every detail on the ins and outs of the restaurant, but thanks to all the knowledge you have bestowed upon me I knew how to be a great leader. And so I set a series of events in motion that changed the operation completely! Here we go, step by step:

1) I gathered feedback from our top performing employee on the service line. She is a great employee and was more than happy to explain what she felt was wrong. She even offered an idea that I was able to tweak and implement, more on that later though.

2) My management team would be a problem (I hate saying that). We do not have the staff for four lines, but I know they would demand as such no matter what. So, I had to make it look like our staffing situation was so desperate that there was no possible way to get four lines. They pushed me to get four, I pushed back hard. Not angry hard, but I told them to trust me that I can get more out of three lines running at max efficiency than they can get with four lines running with minimal staff. Again, they pushed back hard. Luckily, I planned for this. On our white board where we write staffing assignments I may have forgotten to write a few names in order to give the perception we were really short handed. Reluctantly they said with disappointment, “Well Josh, looks like you get your wish to have your three lines. <Insert boss’s name here that I wish to leave out> is going to pissed at us though.” I was peeved at the idea that a someone other than the unit manager fought harder than the manager when it comes to quality of service for both our guests and employees, but this was not the time for that fight, I had what I needed!

3) Remember the idea mentioned before? With that employee’s input and a variation of an idea of my own we created a new position on our service line. This position would expo everything that would come from the kitchen including: special orders, replacement food for the hot lines, and other requests our service lines people would need. This way we had a single point person between front of house and back of house communication, instead of a free for all for attention and food. In this position needed to be a leader or a really talented individual. On that Tuesday myself and the aforementioned employee would be the initial guinea pigs.

4) While I hid some employees from the management team, the truth of the matter was we were still short handed. I had to divide the team up intelligently in order to maximize efficiency while keeping spirits high. So, I had our best three cashiers on cash, three volunteers would handle drinks (an easy enough task to get the hang of) and each line would be composed of two volunteers and one veteran employee who would work alongside their assigned volunteers. The last employee and I would take the expo position so we could oversee everything and she would jump in on a line as needed.

The stage was set. Three fully staffed lines, a new expo position to improve team work and communication, a leader that would not leave the line until business was done, and a rather stirring morning meeting speech performed by yours truly!

To say we rocked it would be an understatement. The lines being staffed as they were meant no one person was given a workload that was too heavy to handle. The volunteers had a “go-to” employee on their line in case they had questions, as expo I made sure everyone always had food so we were never waiting, as a leader I made sure everyone was smiling and had my full support the whole time. Everything was as it needed to be. Once we were done with our peak hours I went down to two lines, and then eventually one line. At that point I pulled our volunteers to the back employee area and told them they were awesome, because they were! You would have never guessed they were new! Next I pulled my regular employees in and told them they rocked it! Their presence on the line was vital for success and they came out the gate swinging. Team players all day! Lastly I pulled that awesome employee aside and personally thanked her for her input, her hard work, and her passion for the unit. She has a great future as a leader and I hope I can help her along that path.

As the day was winding down I passed by the managers as they were huddled in a hallway. One gave me a smile and nod, while the rest kind of gave me a slight glare. I understand their contempt as I changed things during peak and essentially told them I would not do it their way. It did not bother me though, I was riding a high from the day’s performance.

Now the icing on the cake. I checked our revenue for the day and we made more money on three fully staffed lines than we have with four lines in the past six months. That high I was riding sky rocketed even further. I was nearly in tears of joy as I walked home because I felt like I accomplished something truly special: Peak Season, three lines, top sales, and all employees happier leaving work than they were coming in.

I came in the next day knowing I had to finish my schedules as they were due soon. I setup the staffing board again with anticipation of resistance to the three lines idea again. Before I sat down to do my schedules I wanted to ensure we were set up for success again. This time, however, the opening manager (different one from previous day) gave me full control. With a smile on his face he told me to run my three lines as I did the day before since it worked so well. It is one thing to change the minds that work for you, it is a whole different feeling to know you changed the minds of those you work for! Even better, as our employees trickled in for the day each one requested that I be in charge of the restaurant again. Every volunteer, every employee. I worked one day inside that unit and made such an impression that everyone wanted me back. That is the best feeling in the world. I finished the schedules in no time flat and rushed up to the restaurant to take position as their leader for yet another stellar day.

Before Tuesday I had never felt like I made such a profound impact on a team. The success is not all mine, as I owe great deal to everyone who worked hard, and even more to that one employee who was willing to talk as along as someone was willing to listen.

None of this would have been possible without your guidance, Matt. My exploration into industrial engineering, psychology and body language helps, but I take everything you write into consideration every day. You helped me be a better person and a better leader. Tuesday was beautiful in every way and it has reignited my passion to make the workplace better for everyone that has worked there, is working there, and will work there in the future.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Thank YOU, Josh for sharing that story – a great example of thinking differently and being brave enough to see it through!  Well done!

So here is the challenge for all leaders: What can you do in your operation that increases efficiency AND sales, all while maintaining peak employee engagement?

If you have a story like this and are willing to share, please do!! (You can email me here.) Your successful examples can help everyone be a better leader!

Thanks for reading!


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