Huddles Not Pinballs

Huddles Not Pinballs

  |  February 22, 2021

As the manager of a large prepared foods department decades ago it struck me that I not only had loads of information to share with staff, but that they also had suggestions and best practices to share — and not just with me but, at least as importantly, with one another.

At the time, our department communications consisted of numerous station-specific logbooks, notes on scrap paper, marker boards, a hugely controversial evening monthly meeting, and memos. I’d spend huge amounts of time crafting the perfectly worded memo in the hope that it was clear, concise, and uncritical — often on topics that were relevant but undeserving of such expensive managerial time. Staff added notes as well, and in time we had covered all available wall space. Throughout our days we shared info by interrupting one another on impulse, without regard for timing or relevance, like pinballs randomly bouncing off one another. By not organizing how we communicated, we created a chaotic cacophony of information.

Years later, through my experience in leading staff, troubleshooting, and consulting, I recognize the same pattern in department after department. Just this week a department manager in one of the country’s largest co-ops told me that “I could put memos in mailboxes all day long and no one gets them.” This leader, responsible for a staff of 50, noted that because she spends so much time disseminating information she has “no time to work on the big issues.”

Daily Huddle

Back in that deli, I was in a role that required me to manage and handle loads of information and to relay it to numerous staff. I realized that our work could be much more effective if I removed myself as an information gatekeeper and instead became a communications facilitator. This kind of system would demand more from everyone in terms of communications and discipline, but I trusted that in remaining focused on the collective benefit of this evolution, I could quickly gain staff participation and support. And so the daily meeting was born.

If the word “meeting” sounds too formal or terrifying, you might call it a “briefing” or “huddle.” A huddle sounds more fun, more efficient, and less intimidating. Whatever you call it, such a meeting can be an invaluable communications centerpiece to any busy, sizable department — especially deli, produce, meat/seafood, and grocery teams.

Huddle Principles

How do you free your staff from info-glut and more efficiently share the collective knowledge of your department? Following are eight principles for inaugurating an effective daily huddle:

1. Get staff excited about the concept of trading dozens of daily interruptions for a consistent, dependable daily exchange — in which their participation is not only welcome, but required. Crush any reservation that such meetings will be time-wasters by assuring staff that the philosophy and content of the meetings will allow them greater opportunity to efficiently collaborate — thus working smarter, not harder.

2. Start at the same time every day, ideally when the most staff are on shift. Consider having the meeting during a 15-minute shift overlap. Don’t worry that every staff member will not be able to attend on a given day. It will be easier to brief one or two people who have to cover customer service during the meeting than to tell every person everything. And don’t worry about the labor dollars associated with a meeting. The huddle will pay for itself in improved communications, shared best practices and reduced interruptions. Make sure the meetings are held every day, even if the manager has nothing to say or is not present. After all, these huddles are as much for staff to communicate with the manager and one another as they are for the manager to preach and teach.

3. At first, limit the role of facilitator to the manager and one or two other dependable associates. When you’ve established a consistent huddle format and environment, encourage others to facilitate and thereby develop their skills and confidence. A staff that can conduct productive huddles in the manager’s absence is a highly prized goal!

4. Have a scribe take brief headline-style notes in a bound journal. To keep staff who have been absent better informed, start each meeting with a recap of recent info from the previous few days of huddles.

5. Limit the huddle to no more than 10-15 minutes and develop a reasonably consistent format. For example: recap from the journal for 3-5 minutes; new info from the leader for 3-5 minutes; staff input for 5-7 minutes; closing remarks and kudos for 1-3 minutes. Be prepared to table topics that don’t fit into your time limit and aren’t necessary to resolve. And don’t hesitate to politely stop a conversation and refer it to a different group of participants due to length or privacy issues.

6. Take advantage of the fact that you are gathering the experience and creativity of many people by allowing them to help you resolve challenges. A meeting that focuses solely on the laundry list of things the leader wants to tell staff will have squandered the value of the group’s wisdom.

7. Have a list of topics you can draw on during slow news days. Be ready to use your huddles for brainstorming and identifying department weaknesses, presenting chunks of financial education, tasting new products, and celebrating your department’s growth and evolution.

8. Have a strong and clear vision of a highly productive and functionally communicative daily huddle. Stay focused on developing that picture and getting every member of your staff to appreciate and participate in the daily huddle. When staff interrupt you mid-shift with info that is relevant to other staff, reply with something like: “Would you please remember to share that at today’s huddle?” Consider stocking packs of notepads for staff to carry to encourage them to share what they learn each day.

In my earlier situation, this new meeting style encouraged better staff involvement and an environment of ongoing education and development. Those who were more experienced, creative, or committed grew into more participatory roles, for which they were valued. People who worked different jobs heard about and helped solve each other’s challenges. The morning crew became more understanding of the evening crew, and the kitchen staff gained empathy for the service staff. And everyone came to better understand my role and responsibilities as leader.

By virtue of our collaborative work and the staff’s ability to share responsibility for creating solutions, they began making decisions with judgment, efficiency, and discretion, even on my off days. The department had become so accustomed to a daily meeting that if I was not in the kitchen at meeting time, someone would page me at my desk to say: “Are you coming to the meeting or should we get started without you?” Despite the daily rigors of retail deli work, our daily huddles were seen as sacrosanct communications events — and we were done feeling so much like pinballs.

Revised Feb. 2021. Originally published July 2001, Cooperative Grocer.

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