Would You Know If Your Candy Machine Was Broken?

As you might imagine, there are a few vending machines scattered around our campus. The one behind our building get cleaned out regularly when we have rental groups with large numbers of kids or our own shows are in tech week.

A number of months ago, whenever I would try to get a granola bar from one end of a row, I got a message to make another selection. A little experimenting showed this was the case for a few of its neighbors. Across campus near the administration building there is a machine in which a whole row returns the make another selection message.

I usually don’t see the guy refilling the machines or when I do, I am generally in a rush. But I finally said something to the guy about a month ago. He thanked me for the report and said he would tell the technician to take a look at it. Then he commented that he had noticed on his computer inventory that those items weren’t selling.

It is people like him that make me really nervous.

Part of the reason I finally said something to him was because I started to realize he had no real investment in his job. The situation had existed for about 6-9 months.

Even if he wasn’t the same person who was tending to the machines when the problem started, there were many signs one existed. Not only was the fact that part of the machine broken conspicuous when they were the only things ever left when students and kids literally emptied the rest of the machine, but the items that weren’t selling were actually noticeably sun-bleached. And of course, he admitted his inventory was telling him that items in both machines never sold.

Wouldn’t you suspect a problem if an entire row of candy bars in a machine never sold, yet the Snickers were moving well in the sites around the campus?

The reason people like him make me nervous is that I start to wonder what problems I am not being told about. The vending machine guy may not be paid well and doesn’t feel like he has any incentive to make sure the machine is producing revenue efficiently. I begin to wonder if people working for me might feel something similar. My concern isn’t so much about revenue maximization as ensuring patrons, renters and others who use the facility don’t have a negative experience.

One of the most difficult tasks businesses offering services seem to have these days is training people to be aware of problems and be proactive about either attending to them or reporting it for further action.

I generally feel like I have a good staff that pays attention to these things. This afternoon my technical director noted that the dust from nearby construction had infiltrated our ticket office and the room needed to be cleaned. But there have been times when I have noticed a glaring problem and wondered why none of those who pass that way regularly, including cleaning staff, students and faculty, attended to it in some manner.

Of course, a lot of the responsibility resides with those who train and supervise. It is incumbent upon them to discuss the values of the organization, mention the types of behavior that is expected and outline the available courses of action.

It is also important that those courses of action be viable and legitimate. If a problem is reported and results are not forthcoming, there is less incentive to report problems in the future. The same if the resources to effect the solution are rarely available or there is a perception that making the extra effort on behalf of the organization is not valued.

If a solution can’t be effected immediately, the timeline for the response should be communicated clearly–e.g., “The leaky toilet will be replaced when the building is closed for the summer, in the mean time, this is the temporary stopgap solution we suggest.”

In the non-profit arts, frequent communication about what sort of environment and experience the organization wishes to provide is important given the large number of volunteers that assist with so many tasks. Even long time volunteers may forget the overall vision because they are not exposed to it as consistently as regular staff and they may volunteer at a number of other places, each with its own vision of things.

Most of all, supervisors and other leadership need to emulate the values they espouse with their own actions. If they aren’t excusing themselves to assist someone who looks lost or bending over to grab a candy wrapper blowing by, it is more difficult to get others to do the same.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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