Restaurant Side Work: 4 Ways To Reduce Pencil Whipping And Incentivize Compliance

We all know that feeling of walking into the restaurant kitchen early in the morning and sensing that the closing checklist wasn’t completed—even if all the items are checked off.

Cutting corners with side work might not seem like a big deal to your employees. But as the operator of a business that thrives on repeatable processes and reliable systems, you know that’s not the case. 

Let’s break down some of the reasons why employees pencil whip (it’s not all laziness) and how you can incentivize compliance to create a more efficient and safe business.

We’ll cover a few key points:

  • Three reasons employees start pencil whipping at work
  • Four practical solutions to incentivize compliance
  • How to create an accountability system that actually works

Let’s get into it.

Real Quickly: What Is Pencil Whipping And Dry Labbing?

Pencil whipping is when employees quickly “whip” the pencil across one of your checklists in rapid fashion, indicating they haven’t actually taken the time to complete tasks like cleaning the oven, double-checking inventory, or whatever else is on your restaurant side work checklist. 

Similarly, dry labbing is when an employee fudges a number they’re supposed to record. In the restaurant setting, this might be guessing the temperature of a freezer, or copying the same temperature from the last 20 readings, instead of getting a new one, as is required.

Both types of employee non-compliance are a risk to food safety, operational efficiency, and your manager’s sanity. Thankfully, they’re not things you simply have to endure.

Also Read: 5 Food Safety Tips and Red Flags

Pencil Whipping Isn’t Always Caused By Lazy Employees

You’ll inevitably hire someone who doesn’t value honest work (by accident, of course). Lazy employees are a significant drain on your time and energy. But we don’t believe most pencil whippers are truly lazy people—they’re just experiencing the wrong incentives that make pencil whipping less risky overall than completing tasks fully.

a stressed employee

There are a few reasons why this might happen.

  • They don’t understand the process but are afraid to ask for help. Compelling research indicates that company culture—more than individual personality—determines whether people on your team are likely to express concern or ask for help when faced with a task they don’t understand. If employees fear retribution or judgment from their leaders if they ask questions (especially for a second or third time), it may appear less risky to wing the task, leave it half-done, and whip the pencil anyway.
  • There’s a stronger incentive to save time. Whether it’s a burger prep quota or a reward for fast table service, time-based incentives might be leading to the Cobra Effect, a misalignment of incentives that actually makes the problem worse. While it might first appear that workers are performing faster, the side work that falls by the wayside creates operational strain that inevitably slows everyone down.
  • They don’t experience any consequences. When team goals are laser-focused on specific metrics, like sales per hour, dropping a couple of seemingly-unrelated tasks here and there appears a worthwhile sacrifice. Employees who don’t understand the big-picture purpose of small side work tasks struggle to see why they’re important to complete well.

These three types of employee hiccups can have compounding effects over time as bad habits are formed across stations and locations. Here are a few proven ways to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible.

Also Read: Our Top 10 Restaurant Management Apps

Fix #1: Re-Evaluate The Side Work Burden On Employees

In efficient franchise restaurants, the side work cycle has four stages: planning, doing, checking, and refining. You create a side work checklist (planning), your employees complete those tasks (doing), a manager confirms that they’ve been completed (checking), and you all look back to see if anything could be optimized to work better (refining).

How long has it been since you completed stage four, refining? With so many changes to how restaurants operate in 2020, it’s only natural that your processes need rebalancing. 

We suggest returning to your side work expectations, contrasting them with your current order workflow and volume, and determining if the side work burden on employees has grown to create over-capacity issues for how much workers can reasonably get done in a shift.

Fix #2: Give Side Work Tasks Crystal Clear Instructions

A famous Gallup study from 2015 showed that nearly 50% of all employees in the United States do not feel they fully understand what’s expected of them.

“Expectations—or a lack thereof—have the power to make or break worker engagement. Even if employees feel energized and motivated, those who lack clear expectations and spend too much time working on the wrong things can’t advance key initiatives to create value for an organization.

clear expectations

For some employees, the checklist item “Clean the oven” may be enough to inspire self-initiative. For others, it’s an invitation to scratch their heads. Employees may do a poor job but believe they’ve accomplished the task. They may instead half-complete the job, then use the lack of specific guidance to justify returning to higher-incentive tasks.

You have no control over how employees interpret unclear instructions, but you do have control over the quality of guidance you offer. Get as detailed as you need to be for a task to be well-understood by all employees.

Also Read: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Food Safety

Fix #3: Create A Reliable, Digital Accountability System

Even if you have realistic side work expectations and clear instructions, employees will occasionally cut corners when they’re stressed, tired, or incentivized to dedicate energy to other areas. To plug this leaky bucket, you need a way to keep everyone accountable. 

Get rid of the paper checklists.

Paper checklists are ripe for pencil whipping and dry labbing, even from your most reliable employees. With paper, there is no accountability—tracking compliance is virtually impossible, especially since you can’t be physically present to inspect each unit.

That’s why we’re eternal advocates of the smart digital checklist. This simple technology offers multi-unit restaurant operators the ability to measure employee compliance for all restaurant side work and checklists.

For owners of franchises with dozens of units, it’s a no-brainer. Here’s what owners of Dunkins’ locations told us about their digital checklists:

“We saw a 20% increase in checklist completion from 80% to 100%. I used to spend a lot of time checking and double-checking work. There was a huge time savings in not having to do that. Now I can focus on other things.”

Not all digital checklists reduce pencil whipping, however. Employees can just as easily click a checkmark in an Excel sheet as they can whip one on a sheet of paper. That’s why we suggest using a digital checklist system that:

  • Captures timestamps when tasks are completed
  • Captures manager sign-offs on corrective actions
  • Reports data in a way that makes it easy to determine who’s falling behind

No more wondering from a remote office if everything’s going according to plan at your individual units—you can track it all in real-time. 

With digital checklists, you have access to the data you need to keep employees accountable. 

👉 See more about how digital checklists work.

Fix #4: Foster A Culture Where Questions Are Safe

The fear of judgment is a strong motivator to stay silent. Especially for that employee who’s worked at one of your restaurant locations for months and should already know the cleaning checklist by memory.

employees asking questions

That employee is one of roughly half of employees in the United States who say that they prefer not to speak their minds at work, because it’s safer to not express concern or ask questions than it is to stick their necks out in front of others. Naturally, these employees are more likely to fall below standard when it comes to side work quality and devolve into pencil whipping.

A culture of open communication—where employees can get all the extra clarity they need on tasks—is something that must be continually nurtured. 

Here are a few practical methods you can weave into your managerial practices:

  • Facilitate 1-on1 meetings with employees and invite them to ask questions or refresh their memory in private
  • When managers ask, “Any questions?” in a meeting, wait at least ten seconds for someone to answer before moving on
  • Avoid judgement or ridicule when employees ask questions that feel obvious at their level of training
  • Train supervisors to listen to the entire question or concern before responding to demonstrate to employees that their questions are valued.

Culture starts at the top. As an operator of multiple units, it’s up to you to lead the way toward a more open culture that values questions and reinforcement.

If You Can’t Do All Four Fixes, Do This

Eliminating pencil whipping is a realistic goal. If you address the underlying issues that lead to incomplete side work and implement all four fixes, you’ll get there in no time. 

However, if you need to move fast, the most effective lever you can pull to boost compliance across all your locations at once is to create a digital checklist system.

  • Real-time, remote reporting shows which locations and employees need to step up
  • Accountability incentivizes compliance for all types of employees
  • Custom-made checklists for your franchise are a breeze to generate

The 80:20 Principle says that 80% of results come from your 20% highest-leverage efforts. When it comes to eliminating pencil whipping, digital checklists are that 20%.

Get your digital checklists started here.