What Lesson Can You Learn From a Sponge?

Eric Frederick |

Every once in a while, I try to do something different to challenge my management staff. Last year I gave each member of my team a sponge as a Christmas gift. I asked them to think about what it might represent over the next six months and to give me a short write-up about it around the first of July.
This challenge went out just before Christmas and nothing more was said about it. This, of course, wasn’t their only Christmas present, but the assignment seemed to be in line with the reading material I’ve given them, including Who Moved My Cheese? and It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small...It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow.
Of the four people who received the sponges, only one remembered the assignment and completed it on time. I deliberately didn’t remind them. The first part of this object lesson is that assignments given far in advance with no follow-up will fail 75% of the time.
A manager not only needs to make assignments but also gently follow up and touch base with the personnel assigned to complete the task to make sure they understand its importance. Certainly, writing a short report about a sponge doesn’t seem very important in the day-to-day operation of a laundry. I’m sure there are a number of production employees who feel the same way about a number of tasks they perform each day.
The sponges I gave to the management staff are manmade, and each one is a different color. They all have the same capabilities. How successful they would be at a given task depends upon the skill and training of the user. This parallels the personnel in our laundry. We have a diverse group of employees from a number of different countries who speak a number of different languages. They all have the potential to excel at their jobs but the key is the quality of their training.
Sponges are capable of absorbing liquids, just as our brains absorb knowledge. You need to keep a sponge damp so that it works properly. So it is with our brains. We must keep learning if we are to be effective. There’s never a time in our life when we’ll outgrow the need to learn. A sponge will never reach the point that it doesn’t need moisture to perform properly.
A sponge can be cleaned and brought back to a useful condition no matter how dirty it becomes. Human beings all make mistakes. If a sponge can be cleaned and made useful again, then why shouldn’t we put our best efforts into trying to help our employees succeed? Sometimes they make mistakes, develop the wrong attitude or simply get distracted in life, and their production falls. It’s better to work with an employee than to try to find a replacement.
It’s less expensive to clean a sponge than to go out and buy a new one, but I realize that we live in a disposable society. We don’t respect the things we own and simply replace them when they no longer please us. Technology has a lot to do with that.
My original computer has long since been discarded because what’s available today is faster, better and more powerful. The sponge, however, is no better today than it was 50 years ago. There have been no technological advancements there. Laundries still need employees to get the work done. There have been no major technological breakthroughs when it comes to Homo sapiens. Our bodies and minds have the same capabilities they did 50 years ago. We can’t trade in our employees for better, faster versions. So, in the end, the lesson of the sponge is to:
• Value individuals and their potential.
• Develop better training methods that help them improve.
• Be willing to work with them when their performance drops.
• Celebrate our minor differences in skin color, ethnic backgrounds and languages, because they add spice to our lives and our work environment.
• Look for opportunities to learn and apply what we’ve learned.

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at


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