The Cardiovascular Equipment Sign-Up System

Here’s a remove-the-system-altogether scenario. It’s the ultimate in simplifying things. My staff and I take delight in chucking unnecessary Centratel protocols. System-elimination is great to see in personal life, too. 

The cardio room at the gym where I work out is equipped with dozens of treadmills, step climbers, and stationary bikes. It’s a busy place, so queuing up to use any of these machines was done by noting one’s initials, the desired start-up time, and the machine number on a sign-up board. It seemed sensible to use this procedure in order to promote efficiency and prevent conflict.

All club members knew the logic of the system and in the course of any given day, hundreds of us took the time to sign up for the various machines we wanted.  

Then one day the sign-up board disappeared without explanation. Why did the new club manager remove this logical, order-inducing system without so much as a warning? Probably because the sign-up board was a classic Rube Goldberg creation that attempted to cure a problem that didn’t exist. 

The sign-up board had been duplicating—and therefore complicating—a system that was already in place: the system known as common courtesy.   

The system of common courtesy is a mutual agreement regarding actions between people. The fundamental rule is person A will have consideration for person B, and fairness rules. If people abide by the common courtesy system, seldom will conflict or confusion occur. Step out of the system, and there will be trouble. The common courtesy rule in the cardio room is if person A is using a machine, it will be available to person B only after Person A is finished. For human interaction in neutral situations, this is the familiar “first come, first served” principle. “One takes second position to the one who is already there.” If it is important to use a certain machine, one will wait until it is available. That is the absurdly simple rule. That is the system.   

Obviously, “common courtesy” is a system that lies outside-and-slightly-elevated from minute-to-minute goings-on. It’s a collection of unwritten rules—a system— that supersedes immediate personal ambitions. Common courtesy is the most fundamental and rigid social system in our culture. Today’s common courtesy system is a beautiful thing, much improved over Neanderthal days when the lack of it caused strangers to be killed. Things have improved!

Sam Carpenter is author of the book, Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More.

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