Many Hands Really Do Make Light Work


I know, I know. That “many hands make light work” expression is nothing new. We’ve all heard it before, although, I typically prefer a different variation: “teamwork makes the dream work”. I’ve always accepted it to be true, but I have never seen it on quite the scale that I witnessed at Arlington National Cemetery last weekend.

Every year at Arlington National Cemetery (and other locations throughout the country), Wreaths Across America designates one Saturday in December as National Wreaths Across America Day. On this day, individuals from all around are invited to help lay wreaths on the thousands of graves of our nation’s fallen soldiers. Fundraising efforts go on throughout the year in an attempt to make sure no headstone goes without a wreath. In January, someone has to pick them up.

Last weekend, I was one of those people.

Saturday morning in the DC area was a cold and damp one. It was the kind of morning where you walk outside and your nose instantly stings from the cold air you breathe in. It was soggy and dreary. My boots made a squelchy, sucky noise when I trudged through muddier areas.

As my friend and I made our way to the designated area for instruction, I noticed others around me already getting to work picking up wreaths. They were armed with ropes, rakes, brooms, hockey sticks, boards, canes, and assorted other tools to aid them in their wreath wrangling. Others were picking them up with their bare hands. It didn’t matter what you used, as long as you were helping.

I walked past section after section of headstones, each with a wreath and bright red ribbon. I could see them in every direction. I could see them as far as my vision would allow or until they crested over a hill. I could see that this was going to be a pretty daunting task.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t.

The team leaders explained that they expected the whole wreath clean-up event to take three hours. I almost audibly scoffed at this, but managed to hold it in. Surely they were mistaken. There are wreaths EVERYWHERE. Well, turns out, I was right. They were mistaken, but so was I. The whole thing really only took about two hours.

Once I got into it, picking up the wreaths went extremely smoothly. I’d get back from putting my rope’s worth of wreaths into the dumpster, and the section I was working in had miraculously been cleared out. I’d relocate and start fresh in a new section but it happened time and time again.

Eventually, I didn’t know where to go. I could hear people walk by asking “Are they all picked up in this section?” and saying “There aren’t any more over there.” I couldn’t believe it; wreaths had become scarce. I felt like I had just gotten in the groove and we were done?

This was probably the best example of teamwork I’ve ever witnessed in my life and it made me think about why it’s so successful. I realize that it’s a simple task (Step 1: Pick up wreaths. Step 2: Haul them to a dumpster. Step 3: Place them in aforementioned dumpster.), but coordinating that many volunteers and services could be anything but. The folks at Wreaths Across America and Arlington National Cemetery have figured out how to make this operation run like a well-oiled machine.

First, we all knew what we were there to do. The goal was clearly communicated through multiple channels (radio, website, etc.) and brief instruction from team leaders for those that were new to the effort, so there was no confusion about our purpose (see above: Steps 1 through 3).

Second, the event coordinators keep the process form getting too bureaucratic (which is quite a refreshing treat for those of us used to the red-tape culture). There is no registering, no signing up and no filling out paperwork. You either show up to help out or you don’t.

Thirdly, they let everyone choose the tools they think will best help them. The information for the clean-up event that was posted offered some helpful hints and best practices (i.e., bring ropes, rakes, or whatever else you can think of to carry more wreaths), but other than that you were free to do what worked for you.

Lastly, they stay out of it. There was no “game plan” or groups of volunteers assigned to a particular section of the cemetery to gather the wreaths there. As long as you were working toward the goal and being productive in any way that you could be, you were an asset.

The success of this event largely relies on trust. The coordinators do what they can to get the information out there, to communicate the goal and the need. They take care of the behind the scenes logistics coordinating dumpsters, drivers, and equipment needed to haul the wreaths away. Then they give up control. They trust that people will show up, do the job well and be respectful. From what I witnessed last weekend, that system works flawlessly.

Complexity of our various work questions and problems aside, how great would work days be if our teams functioned as efficiently?

Mackenzie Wiley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mackenzie Wiley

That’s awesome! Maybe I’ll see you there next year! Have you done the wreath-laying in December too? I’m curious about the turnout for wreath placement vs. clean up.

Kathleen Holland

What a wonderful project and way to pay respect to those who have served. I was initially surprised to hear they do not assign volunteers to specific areas but then I realized two key points 1- there is no “dream” assignment- everyone is doing exactly the same thing and 2- everyone can see what is left to be done. Definately food for thought at the office.