I had a baffling experience at my local post office the other day. It’s a small satellite office with only two counters available to assist customers, and as I walked up, I noticed that ropes were set up to guide customers in the queue as they waited for the next available agent. Fortunately, there was nobody in line in front of me, so I was able to walk directly up to the only agent that was working that morning. As I placed my envelope on the counter, she looked up and said, “Ma’am, you’ll have to go through the line.” I thought she was joking as I looked back over both my shoulders, chuckled and said “There isn’t anyone in line.” Her voice got a little firmer, “Please ma’am, I’ve been instructed that I cannot wait on you unless you come through the line.” A little bewildered, I thought perhaps I was on a revival of the Candid Camera television show. So I retraced my steps back through the short maze, turning right and then left and came to a stop beside the sign that said “Please Wait For The Next Available Agent.” Sure enough, once I got there, she looked up at me and said, “Can I help you?”
As I walked out of the store after concluding my business, I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake my head in disbelief. My first instinct was to berate the employee – I mean, what happened to common sense? But then I realized that it was more the organization’s fault than the employee’s. Someone in management had so strongly impressed upon this person the importance of tasks and processes that she completely lost sight of her overriding and ultimate objective which was to serve the customer efficiently and effectively. This is a classic case of following directions blindly even if it gets you to the wrong destination. Unfortunately, by laying too much emphasis on processes and procedures, management has set this employee up to fail. It occurred to me that perhaps similar scenarios occur more often than we might realize. In the pursuit of standardization, could you perhaps have inadvertently created a similar situation where the emphasis is now placed on the process rather than on the outcome? Or have you seen examples similar to what I just experienced? I’d love to hear from you.
A great example of why TQM-type thinking, which may work fine in a manufacturing plant, can destroy initiative and caring in nonprofit and government settings. We deal with people! Every person is unique and has value just by existing; we need to be flexible and responsive to their aspirations and needs.
Canada Post has a Values and Ethics Office, which was clearly not consulted or not listened to by whoever implemented this process.
Thanks for the reminder, Merge! I am a firm believer in achieving efficiency by designing, implementing and managing effective processes. In so doing, I must remember to encourage my team to also use common sense and give them the liberties to do so.
Jane thanks for your perspective. It sounds like this is not the first time you have seen something like this happen. I am generally a supporter of TQM (Total Quality Management) and I believe that it can accomplish great things, but if this is what it results in, we’ve clearly missed the mark!
Thanks for your candour Christine. I too am a believer in effective processes because most times the outcome is positive. In this case though, somebody lost sight of the overriding objective!
First time poster long time listener.
There is a good reason why you had to go through the otherwise empty line-up and yes you were on Candid (Security) Camera.
In the age of plastic payment options that require entering a PIN to verify identity, organizations can no longer aim the security cameras at the counter. To compensate the line up area is captured by the security tape.
There aer other reasons to focus the camera on the line-up and not on the agents desks. One in particular is union and management issues. The union could object to constant survelliance of their members through use of CC cameras. So to get over the union objections, Management redirects the camera viewing area to the customer line up. Some of the schedule 1 Canadian banks have to do this.
My point is that quite often customers missinterpret the employee directions as bad customer service, where-in the real reason is not disclosed for confidentiality reasons.
Kris, thanks so much for your insight — you offer a perspective that would never have occurred to me! Who knew?! So if this was the reason for the Candid Camera routine, then a couple of more questions come to mind. Was the employee made aware of the reason why customers needed to go through the rope maze as they made their way to the counter? If so, it would have served her (and the situation) well to share that reason with me. If not, then management still set her up to fail by keeping her in the dark. Whether it is working with employees or customers, it is important to tell people “why”. When people understand “why”, they are better equipped to not only give better customer service, but also deal with unexpected situations. What do you (and our other blog readers) think?