Friday, June 05, 2015

Rules vs Common Sense

Staff Sgts. Fred Hilliker and Robert O'Hair were boarding Delta Flight 1625 in Baltimore for the last leg of their trip home from Afghanistan with 32 others in their U.S. Army unit when their homecoming came to an abrupt halt. Delta personnel told the soldiers they needed to pay $200 for each person that had a fourth bag with them, even though their military orders stated that these bags were covered.

Unable to gain resolution with Delta, the two Staff Sgts filmed a YouTube video about the incident. The story generated considerable buzz for an obvious reason: the Delta employees were following the rules to the letter but failed to exercise any judgement or initiative. If they felt the fees were wrong, why didn’t they just waive the fees?

The Delta situation highlights a trend in management that favours the fulfilment of quantifiable, top-down metrics. Many of us have had a ‘computer says ‘no’’ experience. It is frustrating and pointless and seems to occur more and more. As psychologist Barry Schwartz has observed, many areas of life are increasingly bound up with rules that limit the ability of individuals to use judgment and make the best decision for the specific situation.

It would be wrong to place all the blame on workers for their failure to take initiative. Rather, the blame lies with management that sets rigid rules and metrics that disable employee judgment and makes employees jump through many hoops for mundane decisions, that the overworked employees say, "Why bother?"

It's not hard to see how we got here. Performance metrics are a critical tool for achieving excellence and motivating outcomes. But as important as performance metrics are, problems arise when performance metrics become overly dominant as a managerial principle, as they are in too many organisations.

Metrics earn an outsized role because managing by the numbers is easier than managing people. Employees make mistakes, their actions are difficult to predict, and the outcomes of their decisions are hard to measure. When employees make wrong judgements the resulting mess, in terms of customer satisfaction and legal liability, can often be difficult and expensive to clean up.

Rules are comfort food for management.

Yet customers need more judgement, not less, from the employees they come in contact with. When customers contact a call centre, it's because there is an exception within the existing process and they need judgement that only employees can provide. Corporations need to build guidelines and values — not absolute rules and measures. "Doing what's right for the customer" is a value that can drive appropriate action. Judgment requires coaching, practice and training.

There are many exceptions to these rules bound cultures. See our later email on Zappos, a highly successful, customer focused retailer who recruits solely on culture fit and then gives employees huge discretion to solve customer problems.

However, without investing in your front line staff you'll be managing a group of automatons who, when confronted with situations outside the rigid rules, will be virtually guaranteed to make the wrong judgement.

Metrics, policies and scorecards are not bad per se. There are many benefits when used appropriately. The pendulum seems to have swung too far away from employee judgment, though.

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