Systems—a structured way of doing something so that it can be done the same way consistently—can be a great support in our lives and businesses. But they have to be monitored and nurtured. They are not an end in themselves; they are a means. So what does it mean when a system fails? I’ll tell you.
I needed a new suit, and my wife agreed that we could make a special day of it in the city, so we drove the hour south to San Francisco. As we were walking out of the parking garage downtown, I noticed the sign for the bathrooms. Knowing I had a long day ahead of me, I opted to take advantage of the convenience.
The locked door was marked “For Customers Only,” and a sign next to a card reader instructed me to use my parking ticket to deactivate the lock. Feeling flush with the status afforded me as a parking customer, I swiped my card through the reader from top to bottom, according to the clear directions on the sign. Nothing. Fail!
I swiped my card again, more slowly and deliberately this time, from top to bottom as the large arrow instructed. Fail!
I turned the card around and carefully swiped it again. Fail!
I looked at my parking ticket, thinking there was something wrong with it. Maybe I had smudged the magnetic strip in the three minutes since I pulled this brand new card out of the machine when I drove up. I had once seen someone wipe their credit card on their shirt to make it work, so I tried that with my parking ticket. Rub, rub, rub, swipe. Fail!
I re-read the instructions, thinking that I had missed something. Maybe I was just doing it wrong. But the instructions, mounted right next to the device, were perfectly clear. The picture showed the reader what to do, and illustrated a parking ticket, magnetic strip facing towards me, being swiped through the device from top to bottom.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I figure out something as simple as a card reader? What kind of idiot was I? Was the machine broken? Who locks a bathroom, anyway?
What had begun as a convenience was now, through the power of suggestion, becoming elevated to an actual, urgent, physical mandate.
I leaned down to take a closer look at the actual card reader. And there was the problem. On the black plastic surface of the black card reader was a tiny black arrow. The arrow was imprinted at the bottom of the device, and was pointing up.
But the diagram on the instructions clearly showed a large, helpful arrow, with the card swiping down. Unless you looked very closely, you wouldn’t even see the black arrow on the black surface of the card reader pointing in the opposite direction. So I took my parking ticket and—in utter defiance of the instructions—swiped my card upwards. Click. The door unlocked.
After 45 seconds of frustration and disappointment from following the instructions.
How many people had come to this parking garage, tried the door to this bathroom, and weren’t able to figure it out? How many customers turned away frustrated, disappointed, and angry at that parking garage, and, by association, all of the institutions connected with it?
It was a well-intentioned system that failed at every level. It failed at an initial production level when the installation instructions were not followed and where quality control and oversight was not accomplished. Which means it failed at a management level, where, not only should that oversight have occurred, but there was, more critically, a decided lack of accountability instilled in the technician charged with the installation.
And certainly, it failed at the customer fulfillment level. That was 45 seconds of my life I will never get back. All right, I can look back on the situation now and say that yeah, 45 seconds is not a lot of time, really. But in the moment, I was frustrated, embarrassed, angry, and indignant! That was 45 seconds of my life not spent having a special shopping experience with my wife. That was 45 seconds in which my already low expectations were completely underwhelmed and destroyed. In fact, that was 45 seconds in which my customer experience went from a 10 on a 10 scale to a 1.
If they can’t get that right, I reasoned, what level of confidence should I have in the accuracy of their ticket imprinter? What confidence should I have that my actual accrued hours will be properly calculated and fairly charged when I insert my credit card into their self-pay machine at the exit? Are the posted hourly rates at the entrance even the true posted hourly rates? Oh, and is that sign that says “Security Patrolled” going to boost my confidence that my car is even going to be there when I return with my brand new suit?
Champions of care
The system didn’t work. Someone installed the card-reader backwards. Maybe they didn’t test it. More likely, they tested it, and they knew they had done it wrong, but just didn’t care. More than anything else, that was what made me mad. NO ONE CARED!
Someone made a mistake, and no one—not the installer, not the supervisor, not the management staff, not the garage owner—no one cared enough about the problem to fix it. How messed up is that!? Doesn’t anyone care about quality anymore? Are terms like “customer service” and “quality” such clichés right now that we’ve just stopped caring altogether? When did apathy become the norm? How could this happen?
Let’s face it; mistakes happen. We’re human, and it’s perfectly natural to mess up now and then. But we have to do something about our mistakes. We need to take ownership of our actions and take responsibility for our work. Such accountability breeds competence. The root of competence is care. If you’re responsive, you’re expressing that care.
No one at the garage where I parked was caring, responsive, or competent. That should not be acceptable. Not to you, not to me, and certainly not to the owners of that garage.
So how do we change it? How do we alter our reality so that we foster an environment of care?
Reject systems fail
Don’t let it happen in your business.
Don’t allow Systems Fail to permeate your culture.
Systems are vehicles to express your care.
Systems are never an end in and of themselves.
If you see something wrong with a system in your business, change the system.
Systems exist to serve people, not the other way around.
Systems are a means of growth.
Systems are a means of joy.
Systems free us to be truly ourselves.
But we’ve been conditioned to think that systems don’t work. We’ve been conditioned to expect a Systems Fail! When you get a new dresser, a new barbecue, a new faucet, do you read the instructions before trying to put it together? Of course not! Most of the time the instructions don’t work or give you bad information. Unbelievable! The system, specifically designed to help you out, gives you more work rather than less! We’ve been conditioned to think that systems are inherently untrustable.
It is time for all of us to take responsibility for systems that just don’t work.
I’m calling on everyone reading this to raise their standards for living and to reject Systems Fail! We need to reject Systems Fail at every opportunity. We need to overcome our conditioning and embrace systems for what they represent: growth, joy, personal fulfillment. Because a Systems Fail is an opportunity to make your business better—to make Life better!
But to do that, we need to care. When we care, we’ll do something about it. I’ll say it again: systems are vehicles to express your care.
Systems are about more life.
So what other instances of Systems Fail have you experienced? Did it happen at the grocery store? Did it happen with your computer? Did it happen in your own business?
Tell me about it. Then do something about it in your business. What are you waiting for?