Zingerman’s Laws Applied To Cities

Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor is legendary.

Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor is legendary.

Have you ever been to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

If you have to think about it, most likely you haven’t been because Zingerman’s is unforgettable.

The type of business that is so good they have made fans worldwide and inspired people from all walks of life to make the journey to Michigan to experience the magic. They also offer classes and books for entrepreneurs that want to learn how to do it right.

Last week, Zingerman’s released their “12 Natural Laws of Business Success”. We share and add some commentary as it relates to cities.



LAW #1 : An inspiring, strategically sound vision leads the way to greatness (especially if you write it down!)

Amen. Having a sound vision is the best economic development and community spirit builder you can possibly design. Delray’s vision has been legendary, but sadly absent in recent years. Boca’s vision is different than Delray’s but equally compelling. Every city is different, but every city that wants to be great needs to have a vision, shared and developed by stakeholders. That’s all those who have a stake and don’t forget to give voice to all, especially youth and people who need some help.


LAW #2 : You need to give customers really compelling reasons to buy from you.


In retrospect, this one is practically self-evident! And most successful businesses do this anyway. We think it takes on special super-powers if you have it top of mind. If you mindfully articulate the “compelling reasons to buy” for every product you put out there and then, you intentionally work every day on adding to that list – you’re pretty much sure to be on the path to success!

City Corollary: Homeowners, tourists and business owner have an almost infinite number of choices. In order for them to choose your city you need to give them compelling reasons, commonly known as amenities, activities, quality of life, quality of place and quality services.



LAW #3 : Without good finance, you fail.


Speaking of self-evident, this one is so obvious it almost didn’t make it on the list. It’s here because it’s really not a great idea to assume that the obvious is obvious to everyone. It also made it to the list because we recognize that people are driven by different passions, and assuming that if you’re passionate about what you do then the money will take care of itself is not a great idea. Neither is thinking of money as a necessary evil. You’ve got to pay attention to the money for its own sake.

City Corollary: It’s the public’s money, so spend wisely and efficiently and on the big stuff make sure you have buy-in. The major spending in Delray was done via visioning, serious efforts at input and referenda.



LAW #4 : People do their best work when they’re part of a really great organization.


Remember that job you had (and hopefully still have!) that you totally loved? You jumped out of bed each morning eager to get to work. You brought your best self to work. You loved the work you did and you did what it takes to be darn good at it. You loved what your business did. You were fond of your co-workers and you all made a rocking team. Your boss thought you were the bees knees. Yep. That’s what we’re talking about. If you strive to create that kind of workplace every day, you’ll most likely also have a really successful one.

City Corollary: It’s all about the team and community building. Worth the effort, because you can’t achieve if this ingredient is missing.


LAW #5 : If you want the staff to give great service to customers, the leaders have to give great service to the staff.


Hmm, you might be thinking. Did I read that backwards? You didn’t. But it is kind of backwards from the way most of the world works. Which is also what most people say about Servant Leadership, which is the leadership philosophy that we follow here at Zingerman’s and which this law reflects. The truth is, the service that the staff gives to customers is almost never going to be better than the service that they’re getting from the organization, particularly the leaders of the organization. The leaders set the bar for service – what the leaders model to the staff could set that bar real high or it could define what the lowest acceptable level of service is. Or something in between. You choose.

City Corollary: Elected officials need to rely on their staff to achieve their goals. Accountability is essential, but you cannot micromanage. Support your staff, if you can’t support your staff you have the wrong staff.


LAW #6 : If you want great performance from your staff, you have to give them clear expectations and training tools.


In the book, “First, Break All the Rules,” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, they cite a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization. Gallup asked 1,000,000 workers and 80,000 managers (right?) about the factors that are the most important for keeping the best workers in their jobs for the longest period of time. Guess what the top 2 were : Clear expectations and, the tools to do their work. Hence this law. At Zingerman’s we keep this in the forefront by making sure that we use the Zingerman’s Training Compact and 4 Training Plan Questions for all the internal (and external!) training that we do.

City Corollary: Give clear direction to your staff and also give them the resources to the job. Then get out of the way, trust but verify though.


LAW #7 : Successful businesses do the things that others know they should do …. but generally don’t.


You’ve probably read a business article (or 5!) about L.L. Bean’s remarkably lenient returns policy. They now have decades of data supporting the fact that it’s a great idea for their business. Why hasn’t every single clothing retailer in the country hasn’t adopted the idea? Because it’s hard work. It’s staff training, customer training, tracking systems, extra accounting and a couple of things we’re not thinking of. And yet, it’s a great idea that generates incredible customer loyalty and (to quote the article above) “As a business practice, it’s expensive. As advertising, it’s cheap.” Having and adopting ideas like this, ideas that take us towards greatness, is exactly what differentiates successful businesses from those that are not.

City Corollary: Great cities provide outstanding services, don’t get bogged down in process and concentrate on outcomes that create value for their citizens/customers.


Law #8: To get to greatness you’ve got to keep getting better, all the time!


You’ve heard this one in a million different ways. There is no standing still, you’re either going forward or you’re falling back. Continuous Improvement. Kaizen. And so on. The important thing to note about this law is that it applies to everything. Any business or activity or pursuit for that matter. But also any aspect of a business. Products. Processes. Systems. Measures. People. They’ve all got to keep getting better, all the time!

City Corollary: Complacency is a killer, once you stop aspiring you expire.


LAW #9 : Success means you get better problems.


This one is a bit of a mind bend until you accept it. But as soon as you have, it becomes a belated glimpse of the obvious! If I asked you whether you can imagine a world/time/place that is free of all problems, you’d laugh at me, right? And yet, each of us, at least secretly, believes that when we get to that next stage, meet that next goal, life will become magically problem free. The truth is, you’ll just have different problems, and if the next stage or goal is getting you better problems, call it a win! Example : You obsess about customer service and are nationally recognized for it. Good Problem : You have lines out of the door and are getting customer complaints for the wait time. Less Good Problem : You don’t obsess about customer service, you have no lines and no one complains about the wait.

City Corollary: Love this one. Success means you get better problems—like parking, traffic, etc. Is traffic pleasant? Nope. But it sure beats no traffic on your main street.


LAW #10 : Whatever your strengths are, they will likely lead straight into your weaknesses.


Another way to think of this one is – “Get off the see-saw”. Getting off the see-saw brings better perspective to many, many situations but is particularly effective when you are evaluating your organization/team/business, or even yourself. Thinking of attributes in terms of good/bad or desirable/undesirable misses the complexity of the world in which we operate. A different time, place or situation is all it takes for a strength to be a weakness and vice versa. Example : Being a very participative workplace. Strength : Employee engagement. Weakness : Decision making can take longer.

City Corollary: Get off the dais, don’t keep your own counsel (you are not the smartest person in the room) and don’t surround yourself with people who think alike.


LAW #11 : It generally takes a lot longer to make something great happen than people think.


Speaking of taking longer, greatness takes a long time. And a lot of persistence. Those stories of overnight, magical success that the media loves to feature? Dig a little deeper and there’s always more. More work. More preparation. More time. More investment. More practice. But if you embark on something, with the recognition that greatness will take a while, it will make you more likely to stick with it and get to greatness. And if you find smaller, meaningful victories to celebrate along the way, all the better!

City Corollary: Celebrate your successes, build momentum and stick with the vision, especially when it’s challenged and it is always challenged.


LAW #12 : Great organizations are appreciative, and the people in them have more fun.


We could have the chicken and egg conversation here. Are people having fun and being appreciative because the organization is great? Or is it the other way around? While that will be a fun (See what I did there?) debate to have, the truth is that it doesn’t actually matter. What’s clear is that it’s a nice self -fulfilling cycle. So, why not go after creating a fun, appreciative workplace and see what happens?

City Corollary: Culture eats strategies lunch. If you build community and a team you can move mountains. If you don’t you’re spinning your wheels and they will come off.

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