Monday, January 3, 2011

Business Process Madness, Part I

by: Frank Buytendijk, chief marketing officer

The supermarket. First day after New Year's Eve and the holidays. People lining up with all (all!) their empty bottles to get their deposit back. Machine broken.

Of all the days where the machine could be broken, there really can't be a worse day. Quite fast a lady, frantically talking on the phone, appears to inspect the situation. She explains the customers they need to wait until the machine is fixed again, and that there is nothing she can do. She leaves again.

Abdel, the supermarket guy standing there quickly realizes this is not going to work. The line of people with lots of bottles is getting longer. He decides to do the right thing and starts to write receipts. As it should be (and always has been, by the way, before the machine arrived): number of bottles, total amount of deposit returned, and his signature. Happy with Abdel taking responsibility, I go to the cash register with my groceries and hand-written receipt.

Here it appears that Abdel did the right thing, but in the end only shifted the problem. The lady at the cash register explains she can only handle things with a barcode, and the little receipt doesn't have a barcode. To pay me out, she needs the "code" from the shift leader. The shift leader is there quickly, and provides the code. I mention that there will be many people coming with a hand-written receipt in a minute. The team leader says that this is not manageable, and will ask Abdel to stop writing receipts immediately.

Phew. Limited damage. No rules broken. But is the problem solved?

Is it manageable for customers to take all their empty bottles in their shopping bags home again? Not really, they need the shopping bags for their groceries again. Not to mention having to come again next time with all their empty bottles...

Moreover, there is no learning effect. The process is simply stopped, instead of adapted to deal with the situation. It is true that the shift leader hopping from cash register to cash register with her "code" is not manageable, but surely telling everyone to report to the service desk with their hand-written receipt is manageable. And if paying out money based on hand-written receipts is a breach in compliance, then escalating that breach leads to realizing perhaps a backup procedure is needed.

Exclusively relying on an automated process, without having a backup plan other than sending customers away, is not taking responsibility. The customers didn't mess up, the supermarket did.

In our era of compliance and operational excellence, it seems many business processes are skewed towards the benefit of the vendor, at the detriment of customer value. This is not good. Employees should always have the autonomy, and training, to figure out what the right thing to do is, and be able to share their best practices. That would be a better start of 2011.