The Lean Office Blog

Daily Accountability – Who’s Got the Ice?

Today’s post describes the importance of having Daily Accountability in a Lean Management System.

Of the jobs I’ve had in my career, the one that taught me the most about human nature and how we approach our work was waiting tables in a restaurant. I’m a firm believer that everyone should have to spend at least one year in their late teens/early 20s working in food service. Not only do you truly appreciate what customer service looks like when your average customer is hungry and in a hurry, but you also learn concepts like teamwork, hard work, accountability, and patience. Many of the best lessons I learned while waiting tables came in the form of something called “side work”. If you’ve ever waited tables, your heart just fluttered a little bit as you try and recall if you’ve kept your side work up during today’s shift. If you’ve never waited tables, you may be a bit confused, so here’s some background. . .


Side work is how restaurants keep the additional operations of the business functioning while still accomplishing the main goal of keeping people fed and drinks full. These are background/support tasks – think things like making coffee and iced tea, keeping silverware rolled, making sure the kitchen floor is swept clean, and keeping the ice stocked in the well under the soda machines. Side work is tricky –  if it isn’t done in the next ten minutes, the restaurant can still function, but if the side work is ignored throughout a busy shift, the operation will come to grinding halt. Because side work alone wouldn’t be enough to justify an entire position (and, let’s face it . . .because restaurants don’t want to pay someone a full wage to do the work), side work is performed by the servers. Ever wondered what your server’s up to when you can’t see them out on the floor waiting on tables in their section? There’s a good chance she/he is back in the kitchen performing side work. Back to the story. . .

As I said above, I learned many lessons around side work, but one that stood out in particular involved the side work of keeping ice stocked in the wells under the soda machines. In most restaurants, there’s a large ice machine located in the kitchen that makes ice at an alarming rate, but it isn’t just for drinks. The kitchen uses ice for several other needs, and often there are multiple soda machines around the restaurant. Because of this, someone has to transfer ice from the machine into the soda wells. This involves scooping ice into a large bucket, carrying it over to the soda machine, and dumping it into the well underneath the machine. The well holds four buckets of ice, and on a busy night, over 100 buckets will get transferred using this method. Not only was ice the most physically draining side work, it was also the most high-profile. Unless your table wanted coffee to drink, every single customer needed ice. When the ice well was empty, a call would ring out throughout the kitchen – “Who’s got the ice?”

ice bucket daily accountabilityIn my early days at the restaurant, it was common for three or four servers (about 25% of the entire shift) to be assigned the side work of ice. When the call would ring out, everyone would immediately reference the assignment list, and the excuses would start to fly. People would articulate just how exactly they were the “busiest they’d ever been”, how they had been the only one on top of ice duty all night, and why another person on ice should be responsible. This is all while placing orders in the computer, filling up drinks, and printing off checks (did I mention multi-tasking when I listed the lessons learned above?). Lots of dramatizing went into the excuse-making, and the end result of most of these conversations was either one of the servers assigned to ice finally giving up and doing the work begrudgingly, or someone else getting so frustrated that they would do the work themselves. Ice side work became the source of at least half of all workplace drama (and probably accounts for 25% of my current gray hair) – something had to change.

About the same time, we added a new manager from another store, and she made a small, and completely illogical change to our side work that had a lasting impact. We all watched the posting of side work assignments at the beginning of every shift with a certain mix of excitement and dread, and we were shocked to see only one name assigned to ice that day. How could this be? How could one person possibly keep up when three or four had failed? Seeing as how I was the person assigned to ice, I raised the most significant objections to the plan, but I was met with one simple request – try it for one shift, and we can always go back to the old way if it doesn’t work.

The shift started uneventfully, and as the traffic picked up throughout the night, an kitchen daily accountabilityamazing phenomenon occurred. I knew that only my name was next to the ice side work, and I knew I would be held accountable if the ice ran out. Every time I visited the kitchen, I checked on the level of ice in the soda machine. If it was low, I would top it off. If I was busy, I would find someone who looked to be less busy, and ask them to grab a bucket for me. Instead of waiting for the ice to run out and create a serious problem that had to be dealt with immediately, I stayed on top of the ice side work all night. That night, the ice stayed as full as it ever had, and I had carried less than half of all the buckets of ice! We left that evening with a new strategy for side work going forward, and I had learned a valuable lesson about accountability.

Daily Accountability and the Lean Management System

At this point, you’re probably trying to figure out what ice side work has to do with Daily Accountability and building a Lean Management System. I know I would be. The lesson I learned that shift, and have seen repeated over and over again is this – when everyone is accountable for something, no one is actually accountable, and the output will suffer. In economics, this phenomenon is called the Tragedy of the Commons. We humans do a bad job of taking collective responsibility for things, and our work is no exception. A common thought process is “I know it’s a good thing to do, but I’m really busy, and I’m sure someone else will get to it eventually.” A large part of making your Lean Management System effective is holding the team – yourself included – accountable to meeting commitments, both internally and to customers.

Accountability involves setting expectations when assigning work and following up to see if that work has been completed as planned. If not, the manager and team needs to find out what prevented the individual from meeting the commitment? Often, the problem was outside of their control. Over time, though, you’ll see that people will start to proactively address things that are preventing them from getting things done, and also to ask for help. Daily accountability means following up with team members so frequently that “I forgot” isn’t a viable excuse. The simple recognition that someone will be following up with them individually is often the only motivation that people need to take ownership of the task and ensure it gets done on time.

There are several benefits to including Daily Accountability in your Lean Management System, some of which we’ve written about here. I’ll end this post with a question: in your organization, “Who’s got the ice?”

The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help Lean organizations  who have moved beyond tools and events, and are implementing their own Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!



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