Binney’s Second Law

Cody pulled me aside, shocked that his manager had written him up for being late. Again.

I asked him to walk me through the start of his shift: He described clocking in at 9:30, going to Laundry and waiting for a clean uniform, grabbing coffee while reviewing the departmental bulletin board for “news”, and signing out his keys from Security, all before relieving his colleague.

I asked him what time he was scheduled. “9:30.”

What time had he started? “I told you,” he replied, “9:30.”

Actually, I reminded him, that’s the time that he walked into the building.

What time did he arrive at his post? “I don’t know – why does it matter?”

To assure that Cody would be on time for his future shift, and knew that “scheduled time” meant “be-in-uniform-at-your-post time”, Cody was scheduled for Training.

After several grueling rounds of interviews with an organizational development firm, I made what I thought was a fateful mistake – I cited Binney’s Second Law. It was during “Career Day”, whereby executives made grown-ups (such as myself) go through show-and-tell hijinks. And I glibly cited it as such, that is, as “Binney’s Second Law” – when the “Chief Innovation Officer” leaned back his rugby-battered frame, rubbed his bald spot in disbelief and snapped off his affected eyeglasses with an, “Pardon me?”

A Man of Excuses would cut and run at this point. (And, to be fair, my confidence had taken a head start and was warming up the Jeep.) But, no. Binney’s Law is a law, goddammit, it isn’t a “theory” or a “feeling” or even a catchphrase or buzzword. It. Is. Law.

At another hotel, I had a large and diverse Bell Staff (that is, those guys that haul your suitcase up and down from your room). There were three bellmen named –I am not making this up – Faraz, Farhad, and Farzad. (Faraz and Farzad were cousins; Farhad’s younger brother, a near-lookalike, was also on the staff). OK, so maybe it wasn’t as “diverse” as I thought.

One day I was waiting with some guests in the Lobby to get on the Up elevator; when the doors opened, Farzad was already on board, in the back with a bellcart.

We made eye contact, I said “Good afternoon” to him, and he just mumbled something and stared at his shoes. Later, I pulled him aside and reminded him that we strive to “Greet All Guests”, so it would have been appropriate for him to say something like, “Good afternoon everyone” as they boarded the elevator. At the very least, he should at least smile. I reminded him that we had covered that in, like, a trillion training sessions.

“But I don’t feel like smiling,” he said.

I was taken aback – I was truly unprepared for that line of reasoning. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what “feeling like smiling” had to do with anything – what if I didn’t “feel like” being professional to my staff?  

We discussed the training he’d attended around “Project a Positive Image” and “Greet All Guests”. I reminded him that our guests paid a lot of money to stay in our hotel, and part of the appeal was how we would make them feel. It was not that our individual feelings were unimportant, but as professionals we put our feelings aside when we were in the presence of our guests.

“Yeah, I just don’t feel like it.”

Clearly, someone needs to go to Training.


Years later, and miles and cultures far removed from luxury hotels, Jay, my Plant Manager, complained often about how poorly his people were doing. “Do they know what they are supposed to do?” I would ask.

Of course, he’d say. But when I walked through the factory, I would be bombarded with questions: Which carton should this use if it’s not specced? What gauge wire do we use for the carton stapler? What am I supposed to do when there isn’t enough to start the next order? Which job gets run next?

If I confronted Jay, he would lament the fact that they just weren’t trained. But trained in what, I wasn’t sure – How to read a Bill of Materials for nonexistent or missing information? What “training” covers fabric shortages and product scheduling gaps?

Binney’s Second Law doesn’t have a single, blinding provenance – no standing on a loading dock lamenting a lack of process, no on-air explosion of frustration with recalcitrant staff. It built up over many interactions – coming off the elevator with Farzad, wandering around the carton sealers with Jay, and more. But I doubled down during that job interview, and stood by it.

Every Problem Is Either

A Training Problem or

A Leadership Problem

After taking the training/consulting job, I was lucky enough to witness hundreds of organizations blame their problems on people. Thus, all problems are “people problems.”

And, more often than not, when something goes wrong, they will send someone (back) to Training – if they do anything about it at all. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but most of the time it’s a waste of time.

As time marches on, and we replace human interaction with apps, it has become difficult to remember when “service” was important – or even what “good service” actually is. These days, “No problem” is an accepted answer to “Thank you”. (The correct response is, “You’re welcome”. You’re welcome for that.) Service skills have all but disappeared, and why they were ever important is but a foggy memory.

Still, one opportunity to differentiate an organization in the marketplace is its service ethic. When I was starting out, we knew our business was suffering because we were not delivering on the service side. Our calculus was thus:

  1. Our customers think we suck
  2. Customers value good service
  3. Therefore, our service sucks
  4. We know our service sucks but we don’t do anything about it

This is the crucial bit:

  1. Therefore, we must not know what “good service” is, and
  2. Therefore, we need to be trained what “good service” is

Those two “crucial” bullets “e” and “f” represent a significant leap in logic. The fundamental belief here is that people fail because they lack knowledge. (In a fit of Aaron Sorkin-esque naiveté, Don  the General Manager once suggested replacing the entire employee handbook with a wallet card that read simply, “Do the Right Thing.” I suggested that the flip side should have an addendum: “Do Things Right.” That was as far as it got.)

It’s actually an optimistic mindset: If only people knew, they would succeed.

So we did what any right-minded managers would: We built a world-class training program.

Once they were trained, they would know what to do, then delight our guests; revenue would skyrocket, we would all become wealthy and happy, and the parks would overflow with chocolate rivers and butterscotch flowers.

“Aggressive Hospitality” training featured subject matter experts, good food, was well-loved by many of the staff, was held in Spanish and at 3AM to meet the needs of a diverse (and round-the-clock) staff, and was featured in Hospitality World magazine (which was in fact a real thing).

And it turned out, our customers still thought we sucked.

Was more training the answer? (Hint: No.)

“Service” – like most businesses – at its core is simple: You greet your customer, you determine their need, you provide it for them; all with a positive, professional attitude.

The basics of good service – greeting customers, being friendly – should come somewhat naturally.

Balancing multiple customers – that is, how to greet the one at the back of the line without diluting your attention to the one at the front – does require training. How to gracefully answer an incessantly ringing phone while maintaining conversation with an existing customer is not a natural maneuver, and an ideal way to build that skill is role-playing in, yes, a training environment.

But most “training” focused on reminding staffers of the need to do what they already knew how to do. In other words, expectation setting. That’s not a trainer’s job, that’s leadership’s role.

If those skills aren’t part of an employee’s natural abilities, that’s a bad hire. Training won’t likely fix that. That was a leadership mistake.

Training works when there is a skill, technique, or procedure that needs to be put into play and the people that need to do it lack the skills, experience, or knowledge to pull it off. The “how”.

Knowing the When, the Why, the How Much – that’s a blend of Training and Leadership. (The first time it’s Training, after that…. Don’t look at them, look at yourself.)

The point here isn’t to bash Training. It’s just not a panacea.

An operator that does not know how to clear a jam on a carton sealer needs to be trained. But an operator who does not know why it is important to ensure proper sealing, what the repercussions are downstream for not enough (or too much) glue, that requires leadership.

If it remains easier for an employee to ignore an issue than to address it, no amount of training will make him or her a better problem solver. Leadership needs to create an environment that flips that calculus.

When we respond to that by sending employees to training, it is really just managerial laziness. (Actually, the bigger failures are when we either shrug our shoulders and put up with it, or we show them the door). That is a cop-out that shifts all the responsibility from us to them.

We can design environments that prevent problems in the first place. Instead of training employees how to juggle calls and face-to-face customers, create a system where the phone doesn’t ring on the floor. Instead of making a machine operator a better mechanic, optimize materials and streamline process flows to avoid bottlenecks and breakdowns.

Training does no good unless someone says to an employee, “We expect you to do this.”

Whenever I dissect an organization’s performance problems, I interview staff and ask, “Has this expectation been set?” followed by “Has this expectation been communicated to you?” I always feel stupid asking this question – the thought that managers have not decided what they want, and have not told their staff, is beyond my comprehension.

Yet these questions routinely hover in the 55 to 65 percent range – of “No”.

Someone needs to say, “Cody. We expect you to be here on time,” or “Farzad, it never hurts to smile,” or “Light-gauge wire will eventually get stuck on the palletizer.” Delivering this message is the most basic work of management. To ensure that the information sticks, employees should understand the consequences of their actions.

If an employee does not know what to do or how to do it, that’s a problem. And it can be fixed with training. Everything else, every other problem – that’s leadership.

And that’s why it’s a law.