A Panera Bread Lesson in Workers' Comp

09 Sep, 2013 Bob Wilson


What do sandwiches and pastries have in common with workers' compensation? More than you might think, when you analyze the process in which both are produced.

I met my wife the other day for lunch at a Panera Bread near my office in downtown Sarasota. I ordered my perennial favorite, the Chipotle Chicken Sandwich, while my wife opted for a Turkey Avocado BLT. As a special request, she asked that the bread for her sandwich be toasted (I have not yet figured out why any sandwich with a BLT designation is not toasted, but that is another subject). My wife took our drinks to find a table, and I waited by the pass through for our food.

The sandwiches came up in short order, and I headed off to join my wife. While I was placing her plate in front of her, I observed that the sandwich did not appear to be toasted. She looked at it, touched the bread, and agreed that was the case. While she was willing to take the sandwich back to have that fixed, I insisted on doing so, proving to her that chivalry is not, as she often notes, "a dead bastard".

I placed the sandwich in the pass through, told the 3 employees on the other side that we had asked for it to be toasted, and asked if they could fix it. One of them, looking genuinely bewildered, told me that the bread had indeed been toasted. He was then joined by the other two in solid agreement, that the sandwich I presented was in fact a toasted one.

I merely responded with, "but it doesn't appear to be toasted".

This launched the Quality Assurance phase of our interaction. Two of the employees each reached up and lifted the top piece of bread with their gloved hands, and confirmed to the QA committee that the bread indeed had been toasted. At this point I felt the bread, and could tell that it was either slightly stale (unlikely), or had indeed passed through a toaster that did not complete the job.

For a few seconds it appeared that we had reached an impasse. I must stress these employees were not rude. They did not convey an attitude. I am not an unhappy customer who will be calling some toll free number to get coupons for free Cobblestones (a Cobblestone is a yummy pastry that 275 pound Bob loved. 230 pound Bob, not so much). These were 3 befuddled employees and one customer, all staring at a sandwich, for which it was becoming increasingly clear, was not going to toast itself.

That is when we entered the resolution phase of our new found relationship. One of the employees asked, "Did she want it toasted, or pressed?" "Pressed" would have been an easy workaround, as it would have allowed the current sandwich, manhandled and fondled by all, to be salvaged. But alas, she did not want a Panini. She wanted it toasted. They remade the sandwich.

From that point out everything was fine - except for the one point where a fourth employee, who had been working behind these three, turned to them and said, "Really? You're remaking that sandwich for him?" We will hope he is not a fast track candidate for management.

So, you ask, what does any of this have to do with workers' comp? I will tell you by simply reviewing what actually occurred. These were employees who had followed the exact standards expected of them, and produced a product that had been within the technical requirements of the job. From a purely technical perspective they had performed every motion required of them, yet found themselves dealing with someone displeased with the result.

Does that sound familiar to any of you?

Every day people in our industry “meet the required standard”, yet find those they serve displeased with the result. This occurs for a variety of reasons. Communication is clearly lacking in many sectors of workers' compensation. Clear expectations and responsibilities must be conveyed. Even the way the industry represents itself leads to this dilemma. Florida's old “Broken Arm Poster” was a great example of this. It showed an attractive woman with a broken arm, and was accompanied with the tagline “Workers' Comp Works for You”. I would've replaced that image with a man wearing a body cast, chained to the wall. The tagline to that image would've been “Work Safe, Because Workers' Comp is the Last Place You'd Ever Want to Be”.

Setting and managing expectations in workers' comp is important.

Of course, there is another way to avoid the “technically correct yet dissatisfied” conundrum. Sometimes it is ok to exceed the standard. Go above and beyond. Make the short term effort to improve long term results. That effort can be the difference between a permanent dependency and a productive return. It is the difference that takes “Process and Close” and makes it “Recover and Return”. It is the difference that takes Workers' Compensation and changes it to Workers' Recovery.

Our Panera Bread example parts way from our lesson when the employees remade that sandwich. In a private, competitive world not guided by statutory standards, they did the right thing by doing what the customer wanted. That is not always the way of the world in our regulated universe of workers' compensation. Still, an effort to improve communications and not rely strictly to statute might go a long way to improving outcomes for all involved. Making that extra effort works – whether it is an injured worker learning modified skills, or a dumbass who is too stupid to know his bread was actually toasted.

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