Systems Equal Success by Alex Vorobieff

startupOne spring afternoon, I was watching the Disneyland Canoe ride and I was amazed by the great job the Disneyland crew did in a short period of time to take a group of strangers of various physical abilities and get them paddling successfully around Tom Sawyer’s Island. It struck me how companies that struggle often fail to have the basic systems that promote a cohesive team demonstrated by the canoe crew. Companies with no basic systems, along with trying to perform more complex activities and more external force than were present, in the man-made Disney river is a recipe for a disaster.
The Disneyland Canoe uses at least three essential systems that are critical for any business. I define essential this way; would the system be missed if it were eliminated?

  1. On-boarding (hiring process)
  2. Goal and pace setting (planning)
  3. Adjusting and measuring (management)

On-boarding (Hiring Process)
The on-boarding process started as the new riders approached the ride. The Disneyland crew let the guests know what type of ride they were boarding. There was no motor. This was the only guest powered ride in the park. They would need people to physically paddle. If they didn’t paddle the others would have to make up for it. They let the guests know it was okay to not get on the ride if they didn’t feel like paddling. The Disney crew let the guest know where and how to use the oars, and they also explained what not to do while in the boat (no standing, don’t reach for items that fall in water, no rocking the boat, etc.).
Businesses that don’t let people know what is required before they start working often deal with expectation gaps. The explanation given by the crew may seem obvious, but letting people know what is expected and what is likely to happen reduces the probability for gaps to arise.
Conversely, by explaining what behaviors were not allowed, Disneyland is able to prevent dangerous situations. Many years ago, one canoe capsized as rowdy youngsters stood up and rocked the boat while trying to splash other boats. Businesses that take short cuts on protocol and procedures education run the risk of, at the least, employing a dysfunctional team and at the worst, sinking the canoe.
How would the typical Disneyland canoe trip go if there was no on-boarding process? Would people get on the boat that did not know they were expected to paddle? Highly likely. Would people find the oars and know how to use them (tools)? Most of the time but not always. Would guests engage in bad behavior? Highly likely. For these reasons, an on-boarding process is an essential system for any business.
Goal and Pace Setting (Planning)
Once the guests were getting settled into the boat, a crew member explained how fast to row by saying you could follow the pace of the Disneyland crew member at the front of the boat. The more people paddled together the more their energy would propel the boat forward. The goal was to make it around the island in less than ten minutes. They said not to paddle too hard at the start and to pace themselves so that they did not run out of energy.
Many companies do not explicitly communicate where they are going and at what pace. Some people may work too slow or fast and throw off the momentum of the team. By setting a goal and having people manage their pace towards the goal, it is more likely to be achieved.
If the canoe ride had no plan or pace setter, it would be likely that people would paddle at different speeds resulting in any number of outcomes. For example, fast starts without energy to finish, or various paddling speeds which could have you moving in circles instead of a straight line, and last but not least conflicting energy levels that can affect the team in countless ways This is why a business needs to communicate its expectations, outcomes, and goals in a system to set the pace so the efforts of the individual and team are channeled to achieve the desired results.
Adjusting and Measuring (Management)
At the back of the canoe, a Disney crew member had the primary job to watch the direction of the boat and to make course corrections. This crew person was responsible for steering the boat away from obstacles on the river. They would work with the crew member at the front who was focused on paddling and setting the pace, and she gave feedback to the paddlers regarding how things were going. She would paddle when necessary but spent more time watching and adjusting to make sure the boat stayed on course towards its destination. She was also responsible for calling out if any of the guest paddlers started to behave in a manner that was outside of accepted behavior such as standing up or reaching for a hat that had fallen in a river. Could anyone imagine the canoe ride without this system? Yet many businesses struggle because they do not have this system in place. They assume the adjustments and feedback will occur spontaneously. The business owner is paddling as hard as possible, nose to the grindstone at the front, trying to generate new business, complete projects, and lead the team. Without feedback and measuring systems almost all canoe trips would be unsuccessful.
Essential for Simple and Complex
Most businesses are more complicated than the Disneyland canoe ride but the canoe ride would not work without the systems. How can a business expect to be successful if it does not have the same basic systems that simple group activities require for success? It is essential for both the canoe ride and any business to have the proper systems in place because planning, direction, and pace are vital when trying to reach a specific destination.

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