It’s a Process

I like to believe I have a good understanding of human behavior and organizations because I also understand risk. So when unlikely scenarios unfold, problems often snowball. Routine processes and procedures don’t work and few of us are naturally resilient or likely to adapt uniformly. The result? Chaos.

I’m not naive to believe that every situation can, let alone should be modeled and mapped. Instead, I prefer to rely on the natural learned associations that create resiliency in the face of the unexpected. For example, fire drills let people  practice their response before an emergency happens.  Google’s availability  on millions of pocket phones make it easy for us to search for literally anything as we need it. Sometimes,  the information Google finds isn’t helpful as in the case of the fire drill.  Knowing what something is doesn’t help us know what to do when it happens.   In such situations we must rely upon our wits, our instincts, our experiences and or instructions.

Murphy meets Moore’s law

If anything can go wrong it will. It’s hard to escape Murphy’s reality and it’s the reason resiliency demands adaptability. Without accountability, few of us willingly raise our hands, respond quickly or with enthusiasm when something goes wrong. Few paid tasks offer incentives to go beyond the written policy, process or rules. Who’s kidding who by this expectation. It’s impossible to have a written policy or spelled out a procedure for every possible scenario. True to human nature, our response favors complacency over invoking our imagination to see beyond visible boundaries.

Few organizations seek to test customers’ time and patience but small problems often escalate when employees are left ill-equipped and lack proper tools, adequate information, flexibility in their role or coping skills sufficient to contain the issue.

Today’s hand-held access to information and alternative resources can be maddening or helpful when well-designed. The reality of  Moore’s law, increasing computer processing power and storage at dramatically lower costs has upped the access and volume of information collected and the simplicity with which it can be shared. Search tools can find anything quickly but may not provide the context necessary to it useful, or direct our actions.

The task of directing data as its needed and in a useful format challenges every organization to gain ever greater  benefits from that information, above and beyond  process efficiency gains. The patient who wants to know the meaning in his blood test results requires different information processing  than the physician. Likewise, customer service representatives need individual record detail while  the CFO needs  aggregate details.

Which Point of View takes priority?

Last week, a very loyal and frequent flyer on United out of Chicago experienced a rather ridiculous, but I suspect increasingly common, set of hiccups while traveling on business.  The 1 pm departure was one of 36 daily flights  United‘s biggest corridor schedules between New York City to Chicago. What should have been 2:43 hours of pleasant flying time turned into a 33 hour runaround that involved a series of independent delays all internally caused by United operations.

I’m not the expert, but the third hand reporter. A maintenance problem initially delayed and then cancelled the original flight. Waiting patiently with the rest of the passengers, there were no open seats on the remaining flights so forced him to spend the night, at United’s expense. The next morning the re-booked flight also experienced a mechanical problem and once again all remaining flights solidly booked left him seat-less. At this point, the only return option to Chicago required that he take a connecting flight through Philadelphia for a plane that was leaving Newark. He hopped a cab and made his way to Newark, $100 out-of-pocket costs. Now at Newark he discovered the plane bound for Philadelphia was also delayed due to a mechanical problem, which also resulted in the  cancellation of that flight. At this point I’m not sure how he managed to finally make it to Chicago; but, I do know that he went through Philadelphia to get home, without realizing that he could have made an earlier flight had  he  rented a car from Laguardia and drove to Philadelphia  to catch the flight.

A diligent, concerned representative in the United club reassured him at every operations misstep and shepherded him throughout the unfolding fiasco. He planned to be sure that United knew she had gone above and beyond the call of duty. At the same time, he wondered what happened to all the other passengers, who were not as privileged and experienced and loyal as United club members?

Why has this horror story become commonplace?

United’s growth through acquisition strategy certainly puts more stress on its processes as well as its overall system integrity. Their unquestioning push for efficiency certainly has allowed them to realize the highest profitability of any US airline this past quarter. But they have done this at a cost to their customers time and patience. There are no visible signs of investment in resolving the most commonplace source of frustration, operational ineffectiveness. Why in one touch of a button can my phone automatically find me a flight, but United not simultaneously send the cancel notification with an appropriate reroute suggestion that I could just approve with one finger? A cancelled flight, once recognized by the system, could  trigger computation of alternatives for each passenger simultaneously allowing them to make it to their destination as seamlessly as possible.

Today, most people upon check in or purchase of their ticket provide contact information to let automatic notification of delayed or cancelled flights. This same system could easily, I think, include re-booked options and scuttle the need for agents at the check in desk or worse passengers dialing into central reservations or clogging the internet with individual tries to  re-book. Where’s the operating business intelligence to improve the process, or preventing the airline from acting in this proactive, comprehensive way?

Improve results not merely the report

Long ago, the airline industry created intricate systems and models to manage the complex task of scheduling, booking systems and financial models. Can adding automatic re-booking in the case of delay or cancellation be that much more complex? I have not yet found this option available . Why?

Competition not only minimizes operation margin but at the same time continues to inspire new carriers to launch all the time. Southwest airlines continue to defy the assumptions of most operating business by proudly proclaiming themselves to be in the Customer service business and be the lowest cost carrier. They consistently are both profitable and playful, blending vision, accountability, inspiration and cooperation to win the loyalty of both their customers and their employees.

In contrast, the larger airlines consistently compromise employee and customers patience, sacrificing loyalty by prioritizing efficiency. Southwest uses collective human intelligence to solve the problems as they arise and make good their commitments to customers consistently.  United appears to use systems, processes and policies that restrict human intelligence and complacency results impeding innovation and limiting the organization’s ability to re-imagine themselves.

The present is always pregnant with the future and yet too few organizations prepare and adjust for its arrival. Change keeps coming and more organizations fail to adapt and find it difficult to keep their imagination pump.  The sooner organizations stretch their process frame to be more adaptive, the sooner organizations will find customers and employees more willing to tackle the impossible. Innovation happens when we recombine our knowledge and experience as it is an opportunity to apply more intelligence and feeling to predefined tasks.

Simple ways to start Framestretching

Framestretching encourages more complete thinking, by stretching our thoughts beyond what we know or think we know and understand helps us think differently. We  astonish ourselves and question what has been normal and give way to new and more effective ideas.

Sometimes practiced persuasion, or twists that humor us will help us see things we missed earlier. The following activities and techniques helps people feel sufficiently successful, help them take initiative, change their actions and behavior and ultimately deliver improved results.

  1.  Reverse the question
  2.  Hold back some of the information to see alternative contexts
  3.  Question the repeated use of a process or procedure for every situation
  4.  Hunt down and check the meaning in the difference in objects or activities you have identified for their sameness.
  5. Ask the obvious, use children’s logic to raise questions that seem well understood but me mere assumptions.
  6.  Ask “What if?”  often.

If you have a story you’d like to share that will help others stretch their frame of reference, please share it, I’d love to hear from you.


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