Easy is Easy - Systems that Get Things Done

Get creative with organizational systems. canstockphoto21116559

Quick. Name something at your camp that you have to remind people to do on a daily basis. I bet you can name at least three. And I bet it drives you batty.

What did you come up with? Sanitize hands? Return cups to the dining hall? Clean up the craft shop? Gather tennis balls from the woods after a period? We can all think of procedures that require frequent reminders. And we all know what a pain it is to pester.

Your challenge in the last few weeks of the season is to list the top three things you have to remind staff and campers to do and design an end run around these lapses. Said differently: Design some systems that make it easy for people to perform the desired behavior. No system is foolproof—and the world is full of fools—but most people at camp will remember to do most of what you ask them to do when a system is in place that makes it obvious and easy to perform. As a result, you’ll spend less time hounding folks and more time enjoying the experience you’ve worked so hard to create.

Example 1: For several years, one camp I know put 12-ounce hand sanitizer bottles on each table in the dining hall. The senior staff gave the cabin leaders constant reminders to use the sanitizer and give each camper a squirt. The little bottles needed constant refilling, which meant someone needed to harangue the camp nurse to refilling. Because she was frequently busy treating sick kids and doling out medications, she needed to outsource that job to someone who—you guessed it—needed constant reminders. To top it all off, the little bottles of sanitizer got sticky and greasy. This meant that the director needed to remind the kitchen manager to remind one of the prep cooks to wipe down the bottles each day. The result? More reminders each day than clean hands.

The solution was to design a system that made hand sanitizing easy. The camp purchased cases of 64-ounce sanitizer pump bottles and made tripod stands that held the bottles at hip height. Four of these mobile sanitizer stations were placed outside of each end of the dining hall. The result? Almost all staff and campers sanitize their hands before entering the dining hall. The process is nearly automatic because the tripods are visible, available and convenient. The system is easy. Each large pump is refilled twice a week by dining services. That’s it. No more reminders.

Example 2: As waterfront director, I used to constantly remind the lifeguards and lookouts on our swim dock, beach and rowboat dock what eight or nine things they needed to do at the end of each activity period. You can guess the list: Hang up wet life jackets, put balls in the ball box, stow oars in the gunwales, clip on the “Dock Closed” or “Beach Closed” sign, bring lost-and-found to the bin in the lodge, put the walkie-talkie on its charger, etc. Sound familiar? If they would only do it, right?

The solution was to put an “End of Period” checklist on the back cover of the notebooks that head lifeguards and lookouts used. (Inside the notebook were schedules, buddy check sheets, boat assignment sheets, etc.) The binders we purchased had clear plastic sleeves on the front and back covers, but we had only used the front pocket (for the title of the book, such as “Main Dock”). Sliding a laminated checklist inside the back plastic sleeve meant that my only communication on the walkie-talkie needed to be, “It’s time to wrap up the period. Please flip over your notebook and do the checklist.” Less talk and more action made everyone happy.

Now it’s on you. Take those top three procedures at camp that currently require excessive reminders and get creative with some organizational systems that make it easy for your staff and campers. Not only will camp run more smoothly, but you’ll also have fewer headaches. Better to be a systems engineer than a siren.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .