“The Little Engine That Could” Adaptation

A Senior Living Adaptation

The following adaptation of Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could”[1] was created and first used as an inspirational aid for a marketing meeting in 2007.  Managers and salespeople were encouraged to maintain a positive, “can do” attitude and keep trying in their sales efforts until they achieved 100% occupancy.

ABRIDGED VERSION

Chug, chug, chug.  Puff, puff, puff.  Ding-dong, ding-dong.  The little train rumbled over the tracks.  She was a happy little train for she had such a jolly load to carry.  Her cars were filled full of good things and new residents for the retirement center.

There were activity items – exercise equipment, games, and even a Bingo set.  Then there was putter baseball, shuffleboard, beach balls for volleyball, giant crossword and Sudoku boards, and the cutest race horses you ever saw.  And there were cars full of bibles and hymnals, a pool table, picture puzzles, books and every kind of thing seniors could want . . .

The little train was carrying all these wonderful things to the senior living community on the other side of the mountain.  She puffed along merrily.  Then all of a sudden she stopped with a jerk.  She simply could not go another inch.  She tried and she tried, but her wheels would not turn.

What were all those seniors on the other side of the mountain going to do without the wonderful activity items to keep them occupied and the good food to eat?

“Here comes a shiny new engine,” said one of the retirees who jumped out of the train.  “Let us ask him to help us.”

So all the seniors cried out together: “Please, Shiny New Engine, won’t you please pull our train over the mountain?  Our engine has broken down, and we need to move into our new home and won’t have any place to stay or food to eat unless you help us.”

But the Shiny New Engine snorted:  “I pull you?  I am a Yuppie Engine.  I have just carried a fine big train over the mountain, with more cars than you ever dreamed of.  My train had sleeping cars, with Digital TV; a Five-Star dining-car where waiters bring whatever hungry people want to eat: and parlor cars in which people sit in soft arm-chairs and work on laptop computers.  I pull the likes of you?  Indeed not!” . . .  And off he rumbled to the roundhouse chugging, “I can not.” . . .

But the old gentleman called out, “Here is another engine coming, a little blue engine, a very little one, maybe she will help us.”

The very little engine came chug, chugging merrily along.  When she saw the old gentleman’s flag, she stopped quickly.  “What is the matter, my friends?” she asked kindly.

“Oh, Little Blue Engine,” cried the seniors.  “Will you pull us over the mountain?  Our engine has broken down and we’re tired and hungry and need to take our medications and won’t have a place to sleep or good food to eat, unless you help us.  Please, please, help us, Little Blue Engine.”

“I’m not very big,” said the Little Blue Engine.  “They use me only for switching trains in the yard.  I have never been over the mountain.”

“But we must get over the mountain before its too late,” said all the seniors.

The very little engine looked up and saw the tears in the grandmother’s eyes.  And she thought of the old folks who would not have any place to sleep or good food unless she helped.

Then she said, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”  And she hitched herself to the little train.

She tugged and pulled and pulled and pulled and tugged and slowly, slowly, slowly they started off.

The old gentleman jumped aboard and all the grandmothers and other seniors began to smile and cheer.

Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine.  “I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can – I think I can.”

Up, up, up.  Faster and faster and faster and faster the little engine climbed, until at last they reached the top of the mountain.  Down in the valley lay the retirement center.

“Hurray, hurray,” cried the old gentleman and all the seniors.  Everyone in the retirement center will be happy because you helped us, kind, Little Blue Engine.”

And the Little Blue Engine smile and seemed to say as she puffed steadily down the mountain,

“I thought I could. I thought I could.  I thought I could.

I thought I could.

I thought I could.

I thought I could.”


[1] 1954 edition with illustrations by George and Doris Hauman

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POSITIVE ATTITUDE — POSITIVE IMPRESSION

“Disney makes you wait on line for a ride even if the park is empty.”[1] Seth Godin uses this example because of the recognized marketing genius of Walt Disney and his organization.  He goes on to point out that “a full restaurant is more fun than an empty one”[2] as he emphasizes that creating demand is a complex process – because humans are complex individuals.

These concepts have several direct applications to the senior living industry.  But, first, a word about the placebo effect.  The past couple of years have delivered many marketing – as well as operating – challenges; and it is easy to slip into a negative attitude about the futility of your marketing efforts.  Of course, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, Seth observes that just as a placebo often produces positive results: “If we believe we’re going to get better, perform better, make the sale, etc., it often occurs that we do.”[3]

If you are the sales person (the individual interacting with a prospect), you must believe in your product and approach the tour, discussion, etc. on the basis that it WILL close!  We know that the sales cycle is a process, but you have to approach each contact as though “this is the one”; otherwise, human nature will lead to just going through the motions and neither you nor the customer will be satisfied with the interaction.

But, this goes further than just the attitude of the tour guide.  The attitude permeates the entire organization.  A classic example is whether to set all of the tables in the dining room for every meal, even when the building has multiple vacancies.  A cost-conscious manager will say to set only enough tables to seat the number of expected residents and guests for the upcoming meal.  They’ll point out that the residents will spread out to all the tables causing more effort in serving the meal and requiring additional staff time in clearing and sanitizing tables and cleaning unused table settings.  So, it’s certainly tempting to save time and money by setting only the minimum number of tables and place settings.

Now, let’s look at the same situation from a marketing / customer service viewpoint:

  • Wouldn’t the current residents be happier having the freedom to sit anywhere they want in the dining room?
  • Shouldn’t the building be TOUR READY every day?  Wouldn’t you prefer to have a table already set and ready if you have guests that you would like to invite for the meal?
  • Shouldn’t management convey optimism that guests will show up for a “tour and a meal” and be ready for them?  Maybe, that attitude will carry through to other staff members and encourage them to demonstrate “pride of ownership” in the building.
  • WHY ADVERTISE THE FACT THAT YOU’VE GOT A LOT OF VACANCIES by showcasing a “half-empty” dining room?

It’s human nature to assume something’s wrong with the choice that isn’t in demand.  Think about it. When one ride at Disney World has a line and another has none, don’t you wonder what’s wrong with the one without a line?  Is that the one your kids are going to want to ride? Probably not.

You create that same question in the mind of your prospective resident and their family when they see a dining room that looks empty.  So, don’t shoot yourself in the foot; create a positive atmosphere and be ready to be full today.


[1] Seth Godin’s blog article:  “Ethical placebos (stunning, but not actually surprising)”  http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/02/ethical-placebos-stunning-but-not-actually-surprising.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

Building a Winning Culture

The first step for success is creating the belief that you can achieve your goals; whether speaking of a sports team, getting to 100% occupancy in a senior living community, or creating a service level that exceeds customer expectations!  This belief becomes the nucleus of a Winning Culture, building on the principle that it is a lot more fun to win than to lose.

Tug McGraw

Tug McGraw

“Ya Gotta Believe!”

1973 New York Mets

The following is a proven, 10-step process to building a winning culture and a winning team in business:

1.  Recruit the “right people” for the team.

In his book “Good to Great”, Stanford Professor Jim Collins asserts that a common trait of successful 20th century companies was “getting the right people on the bus”.  Chip Conley, the founder and CEO of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain takes this concept to another level by relating employee behavior to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.   He states, in his book “Peak”, that the needs of employees may be categorized into 3 groupings:  compensation (base needs), recognition, and meaning.   Quoting Peter Drucker, he suggests that the company must go beyond meeting the base needs of the employees if it wishes to instill loyalty and motivate employees.

Chip also classifies employees into 3 categories:  superstars, silent majority and weak links.  Interestingly, he doesn’t suggest that a successful organization must have all superstars, but recommends a 2 to 1 ratio between superstars and weak links.

Thus, the right people don’t have to be superstars, but they should be capable of being motivated by and committed to the underlying mission of the organization.   Even with superstar skills, they will not contribute to the winning culture unless they are motivated by more than pure money.

2.  Establish a vision with clear goals and expectations.

Henry Ford said “If you think you can … or if you think you can’t . . . you’re right.”  The team will follow their leader.

Employees look for a leader with a sense of where the organization is going and what is expected of them in that process.  That leader must possess a winning, “can do” attitude to inspire team members to stretch their efforts to meet goals.

3.  Create a Team Concept where everyone’s contribution is important.

Professor Collins doesn’t go far enough in his analogy; success depends on not merely getting “on the bus” but in working together as a Team to achieve common goals.  I prefer the example of a racing scull to illustrate that all members have to pull their weight AND work together.

Again, everyone doesn’t have to be 42-15488358a superstar and often a GREAT TEAM is made up of people with different strengths so that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.  A classic sports example is the strong defensive player on a baseball team who is not the home run hitter but contributes by advancing another runner while “sacrificing” his own “at bat”.

Together Everyone Achieves More!

4.  Implement a Rewards Program that gives tangible as well as intangible recognition of Team and individual achievements.

It is easy to identify accomplishments and provide rewards for the superstars, but the really successful manager will find a way to recognize all of the players, such as the batter who “sacrificed” to advance the runner above.  A critical component is recognition for achievement of Team, or company, goals, not merely individual successes.

5.  Assess each individual’s knowledge base, strengths and weaknesses, and then assign them to roles where they can / will be successful.

One of the worst mistakes a manager can make is to expect everyone to be a superstar, which is somewhat like looking for a poker hand with 4 Aces!  The art of management is the ability to mold a group of committed individuals, with differing strengths and weaknesses into a cohesive team working towards – and achieving – exceptional goals.

6.  Provide each individual with all the technical and management training and tools they need to successfully accomplish their job and mission.

The organization must make a commitment to training and dedicate resources to support the team.  Nothing kills the winning spirit more than a lack of tangible support from the organization!  Building the winning culture is a process involving a number of group dynamics that can only be achieved in a collective training setting.

7.  Establish defined benchmarks to attain small, manageable targets in reasonable timeframes.

Athletes are taught to take one game at a time.  In a fill-up or turnaround situation for a senior living community, simply stating the goal at 100% occupancy would be over-whelming and non-productive for local management.  Instead, they should be given daily, weekly and monthly targets for number of new contacts, follow-up phone calls, in-person visits, special events, etc.  These targets are within their control and should lead to increased occupancy.

8.  Empower the “players on the field” (i.e. local managers) the autonomy and opportunity to execute the game plan and the latitude to make adjustments when the need arises.

Management should avoid over-managing.  If you have followed the previous steps of hiring the right people, and giving them the proper training and tools to do their job, you must display confidence in their ability to deliver.  Otherwise, you would be like the football coach who refuses to allow his quarterback to “audible” when he sees that the called play isn’t going to work.

9.  Recognize and celebrate successes when targets are met.

Coach Vince Lombardi said “Winning is not a sometimes thing; it’s an all the time thing.  Jeffrey Gitomer, motivational author and speaker points out that “positive attitude is contagious” in his book “YES! Attitude”.

How do these concepts apply to Building a Winning Culture?

image001The answer is to find every possible reason to CELEBRATE A SUCCESS – no matter how small!  Publicly acknowledging those accomplishments creates recognition and helps employees achieve their higher level ego needs as defined by Maslow.  That image001recognition will motivate them, as well as other team members, to strive harder to achieve even more difficult goals.

10.  Build on those successes to “raise the bar” and reach the next plateau, helping to motivate other team members to succeed.

Winners Lead to More Winners!