Book Review: Dave’s Subs by David Marx

daves subsA late bread delivery. A new driver. An improperly stocked bread rack. A first-time customer. An employee’s first foray into covering as manager. An instinctive reach. A failure to confirm. It was a series of mostly unremarkable events. No evil actor. No intention to harm. Yet a customer with celiac disease had to be hospitalized when she was accidentally served a sub with regular bread instead of the gluten-free roll she’d requested.

Milo, the manager who’d been absent when the mistake occurred, is tasked with figuring out how to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. And so he begins a journey into learning about workplace accountability. We follow along, happy it’s his problem and not ours.

Milo is a new manager, and he’s an extra-thoughtful person. His research leads him first into Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which talks about System 1 and System 2 brains. We all have both. The System 1 brain processes things automatically, whereas the System 2 brain thinks about them. The sub “artisan” who made the mistake was probably operating from her System 1 brain and didn’t notice that the bread had been stacked incorrectly. Had she been using her System 2 brain, she would have checked to make sure three hatch-marks that indicated gluten-free were on the top of the roll, and she would have used the store’s process which called for verification by another artisan.

Milo has to figure out a way to create foolproof systems, to better train his staff, and to decide whether or not to fire the one who made the mistake. Sound familiar? These are struggles all managers must face. The business owner, Dave, decides that no employees will be fired for making a mistake, so at least Milo doesn’t have to make that decision. But there are many, many others he must tackle as the book documents the next year at the sub shop.

The book is a novel. There isn’t a Dave’s Subs or a Milo. But the management process is common to every industry and every manager. That was why it was so much fun to read. It was especially fun for me. Many years ago, I bought into a sub sandwich shop. In addition to hiring and firing, I trained employees and tried to make them efficient at doing their jobs. Like some of Milo’s employees, they didn’t all care about making subs fast or well and were just there for the paltry salary we paid them. I remember one day a customer came all the way back to the shop to show me that his sub was only bread—the “artisan” had forgotten to put the ingredients between the bread. She was pretty ditzy, but she was embarrassed and promised to do better, so we kept her. At least until she did it again.

Reading this book was a trip down memory lane for me. Ultimately, my sandwich shop failed. I don’t think about that experience very often anymore. This book brought it all back, along with other management experiences that I’m sure most people can identify with.

I think my favorite part of the book came at the end, when Milo had to put together performance evaluations for his employees. The organization didn’t have any forms, so Milo had to create his own. By this time I’d gotten to know the employees, both the good ones and the not so good. I was rooting for him to do the right thing. And he did, at least to my way of thinking. You can read it and decide for yourself.

This was a great instructional primer on how to manage workers. It doesn’t really matter what they’re doing, because someone has to pull the entire production together. Milo has his share of successes and failures. If you are a new manager, or you know one, this would be a great book to read.

The author includes a final chapter that summarizes the lessons Milo learned, and how they relate to all managers. For example: “It’s the body of work that gives us the best picture of our employees. We articulate a mission. We talk to our teams about the values we need to protect. We give them instructions and educate them on the rules. Then we watch. Outcomes are measured. Events pop up along the way. As best we can, we integrate these outcomes and events into a bigger picture we call the body of work.”

Really, how often is a management book also a novel? And how often do we become attached to the characters? This book is one of the more creative and fun books I’ve read in a long time.