On Being Last

by Mark Hennes | Dec 11, 2017

Quote of Note
"People don't do what you expect but what you inspect."
- Louis_V._Gerstner,_Jr.

Recently, I volunteered at an all-day charity event. Just before the end-of-the-day awards ceremony, we asked all of the participants to go through a buffet line to get dinner. Standing near the serving line, I watched each attendee get served or grab the self-serve items, and then move to their tables to eat. I then encouraged the other volunteers to get their dinners before going through line myself.

I guess that old habits are hard for me to break, because for 26 years in the Army, I had been the last one through the serving line at every meal. This leadership habit was ingrained early in my career, and it afforded me an opportunity to check the pulse on the unit. While chit chatting with each soldier as they moved through the line, I could see if he/she had the right equipment and that he/she had the proper outer garments for the weather conditions. I could check unit morale by seeing if a normally outgoing soldier was uncharacteristically quiet, or if the good natured rivalry between teams had gotten out of control.

And let’s don’t forget about the food itself. Do the last people through the line have the same choices as the first ones? If not, why not? Is it a systemic problem (the cooks didn’t requisition or prepare enough) or an individual problem (the server didn’t portion it out well enough)? Is the food still hot and appetizing --- and safe to eat --- for the last ones in the line? If not, was this a problem with the insulated containers, or a scheduling error that delayed the serving start beyond a reasonable time?

Equally important, I could check how my first line supervisors had handled this leadership task. Did they send everyone at the same time to the “chow” line or rotate their people to maintain a minimum staffing, and why? Did they notice that someone forgot his/her raingear? Or that a usually quiet person seemed to have a short temper this morning?

Consider one of the following approaches as you do your walk-arounds and check the pulse of your organization:

• Customer Approach – put on the guise of a customer or consumer as you walk into a room or visit a work area. Would you want to eat in your cafeteria if you had another choice? Would you want to sit through this class if you didn’t have to? Treat your students as clients and their parents as the purchasers and ask them what they want from your school. Spend a day in the life of one of your students to see what they think of your school. What is life like for an ELL, minority, or economically disadvantaged student at your school? Observe and ask questions, but don’t offer explanations or excuses as you gather your data.

• Systems Approach – most functions can be viewed as a simple system that is composed of some input(s) into a process that produces some sort of result or output. So your professional development system relies on inputs (money, time, ideas, space, requirements, etc.) into a process (workshop, lecture, book study, guided practice, course, etc.) yielding some results (improved skill, broader or deeper knowledge, better instructional practice, improved student achievement, etc.). When you lay all of this out, do the results you’re getting justify the inputs? If not, why not? Not enough inputs? The wrong inputs? Is the process or method of their employment faulty or inefficient? Is there a mismatch between what you are measuring or results you are expecting given the inputs and process you’ve chosen?

• Fresh-eyes Approach – This is the antidote for the “tired eyes” syndrome, wherein we see the same thing often enough that we become accustomed to it. Pick an office, classroom, workspace, or area and walk into it like you’ve never been there before. Then, systematically examine every aspect of the room or area. Go from left to right and ceiling to floor. Why is last week’s lunch schedule still posted? When did that light bulb burn out? How long has that chair been broken? Do those vocabulary words pertain to this lesson? Is that student always so quiet? If this keyboard doesn’t work with that computer, then why is it here?

• Laser Approach – Pick one thing and look for that one thing in every location that you enter. Do a little planning before you leave your office to decide what you’ll be looking for and what standards that you’ll use equally for everyone. Whether it’s hallway posters, essential questions, proper dress code, or questioning techniques, focus on just that one point throughout your entire walk-around. Take notes, and be prepared to debrief as a group or in private as needed.

Good luck! And, always leave room for dessert.

Get It Done

  • Customer Approach: focus on your customer or client
  • Systems Approach: focus on the systems or processes that achieve the results you seek
  • Fresh-Eyes Approach: observe in a rigorous way as if for the first time
  • Laser Approach: focus on just one thing at a time

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.