Originally Published on LinkedIn, January 2, 2017


When the one handling simple arithmetic chooses merely to repeat rather than to understand.

Among the most discouraging things I’ve ever hear when speaking with employees of any company large or small, is the blind, submissive reply “Because that’s what I was told” in response to the question “why is it done that way?”

When training or coaching employees, whether entry level or managerial, its important for buy-in that they understand why they’re doing things a certain way not just how those things must be done.

Otherwise, the employee who offers to help you at ten paces comes off as an angry drone, rather than a sincerely service-oriented salesperson.

We could probably end there, and boil it down to a bumper sticker. But through illustration the point will be better made.

It was therefore regrettable while working with a part-time bookkeeper for a retail store, when her answer to nearly every question in connection with her daily responsibilities at work, that she was essentially “only following orders.”

The Nuremberg Defense aside, I hadn’t asked “why do you do it that way,” to which the reply might seem less disappointing. I wasn’t asking her about her. I was asking about the tasks and their desired outcomes.

And to be fair you could ask almost any service or retail employee why they do something and if their reply was essentially that they are doing as they’re told — fair enough, as long as they know the reason behind the instruction.

The salt goes there, the pepper there, and so on. (In fact, I’ve heard placement of these condiments has something to do with the visually impaired). And the reality is chain restaurants want their guest experience to be the same in any shop. Breakfast at a Wafflehouse near of Scranton, PA should be about the same as that near Tampa, Fl. (except perhaps for your server’s accent.)

But in some capacities, failure to understand makes performing the job harder – and as in this case, creates more work for others.

To be clear I wasn’t placing blame, and no crime – beyond the crime of voluntary ignorance had been committed. My question however spoke to the understanding of process as I’m a firm believer than when folks understand why they’re performing a particular task they can work more efficiently, with greater accuracy and to a better outcome for themselves and their employer.

So what was this simple arithmetic?

Part of this part-time bookkeeper’s duties was the creation of coin ‘tills’ and their subsequent distribution and eventual counting. Each till consisted of a roll of quarter, a roll of dimes, two rolls of nickels and two rolls of pennies, or $20. Common enough in retail, I’m sure.

On the sales floor, except by only the most overzealous of cashiers, one of each denomination was opened and left at the ready. Once opened, a replacement roll of each denomination might be requested and kept in reserve to avoid a shortage.

So, in this way a roll of quarters might be opened, and another requested, leaving net one full roll of quarters and possibly the equivalent open in the tray. Likewise dimes, although with fifty per roll and the slower pace of distribution while making change the replacement is not as critical. In the case of pennies and nickels, one roll each would typically be opened and the second would remain in reserve.

Nightly, the rolled coin would be returned with the day’s take of paper currency and the loose coin left overnight pending a monthly audit – the company having determined it more cost effective to count and reroll all of that loose coin something less than every day.

Open in the drawer a roll of quarters, a roll of dimes, a roll of nickels a roll of pennies. Returned to the vault, a roll each of nickels and pennies, unless extra coin was requested (and most likely not needed). But our interest is in what remains in the tray, as it’s not counted on a nightly basis.

If no transactions were conducted, the loose coin in the drawer would equal $17.50, with one roll of each denomination opened.

The part-time bookkeeper had to research unexplained shortages over a certain threshold, so it would be in her interest to understand this common amount very clearly. And … she knew the amount. $17.50. But she didn’t understand it. As a result

That’s a till, she say, parroting what she had apparently been told. “One, one, two and two.”


“That $17.50 is a coin till,” she’d repeat authoritatively. “one, one, two and two.”

Now, setting aside that fact that part of her duties, in connection with building and supplying complete cash and coin tills each morning was to preassemble bundles of $20 in coin, consisting of one each rolled quarters and dimes and two each rolled nickels and pennies, bound in a rubber band.

What she was saying simply didn’t add up.

More accurately, the approximately $17.50 by which a cash drawer might be short on any given night was the single open rolls of each coin denomination likely still sitting in the tray, with the still rolled coin returned with the paper money.

I asked the bookkeeper, how much is a roll of quarters?

“$10,” she answered.

No problem there.

“And a roll of dimes,” I said.

“$5, came the reply without hesitation.

“How about a roll of nickels and a roll of pennies,” I asked.

“$2 and 50 cents,” she said.

“So what’s $17.50?” I prompted.

“A coin till,” she said, adding “One, one, two and two.”

“No,” I said flatly, adding “$17.50 is equal to one of each denomination. A coin till is $20.”

The stress had been mounting in this bookkeeper’s tiny windowless office. The pressure was building. And suddenly an ‘ah hah’ moment, laughter and decompression.

Understanding where $17.50 of a possible shortage over $20 may be sitting is the difference between dismissing the shortage and initiating the investigation.

Change is Good.

Why does any of this matter?

Understanding the things we come in contact with each day helps us to connect with our workplace and perform to our fullest.

If we understand the critical nature of a form, we can appreciate the need to fill it out carefully.

If we recognize the very real danger a machine presents, we are more likely to follow safety protocols and avoid injury.

On the flip-side, repeating things we’ve been told, or think we’ve been told without understanding them, is like reading a foreign language from the page without knowing the first thing about that language.

You can fake a French accent and make the approximate sounds, but you’re likely to miss the meaning entirely if you don’t know French

So why does any of this matter?

This employee was reliable and responsible. The daily boxes were all checked. The work got done. But she was initiating an inordinate number of minor cashier investigations due to shortages or overages, miscounts and other errors in the handling of money or processing of monetary transactions.

The resulting paperwork and workload was palpable. There were voluminous printouts, close readings, highlighting of suspect transactions, researching, tracking, forwarding, confronting, signatures, returning, filing and finally… year-end purging of the files.

She performed like a computer, issued “if/then” commands all morning long without ever asking “why?” Along with a rudimentary understanding of how the rest of the cash handling occurred, understanding what she was looking at would have helped solve some of the mysteries created through human error.

Unable to decipher the messages she was receiving the bookkeeper was left with the only tool at her disposal, the formal investigation and all the ill-will it created.

Ultimately I’m told this employee was transferred to a sales department, as a low level manager. An opportunity for her, but sadly a dark day for those who might work under her.

Most regrettably her lack of interest in understanding the meaning behind the process and over-reliance on procedures resulted in unusually high turnover among her subordinates even for this retail environment.

She failed to connect with the work on a human level, thereby failing to connect with the humans doing the work.

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