A customer is checking out at the supermarket. The bagger, a young lad, asks the customer, “Paper or Plastic?” The customer is focused on watching the prices ring up on the register and does not reply. The bagger now loudly repeats himself, “I need to know. Do you want your groceries in paper or plastic bags?” The customer dismissively replies, “Whatever is fine” as the scanned items start piling up at the end of the register. The bagger replies, “Sorry. I cannot make that decision for you”. The customer is clearly exasperated and shouts, “Okay. Paper! Please put everything in paper.” The young lad calmly looks at the customer and mumbles, “Sorry. We are out of paper.”
An outrageous situation that cannot happen in real life? We actually see similar scenarios every day - and the culprit is surprisingly SOPs, Standard Operating Procedures. Our fearless bagger was simply following his supermarket’s standard operating procedure to ask “Paper or Plastic”. How any times have we dealt internally with "that's the way it's always been done" or with external customer service who cite "company policy"?
We have reached a point where most reasonably sized organizations have Standard Operating Procedures. SOPs are not necessarily a bad thing. We need guidelines for safety, environment, and legal reasons, etc. Many companies proudly advertise that they are ISO 9001 or ISO 9002 certified. However, no one should strictly or blindly adhere to procedures and processes without recognizing that changing times and situations means constantly questioning established procedures. The organization and employees can play it safe but never grow or innovate. Employees become worker drones and stop applying common sense. There will be no employee empowerment to go above and beyond, no reason to look for ways to get better, and creativity and innovation are stifled.
We’ve all heard the outrageous news about and watched the video of the passenger (an elderly doctor) violently dragged off a full flight in Chicago in April 2017. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz initially defended the actions and stated that the airline’s employees “followed established procedures”
After being vilified by the press and public and losing $1 billion USD value on the stock market, United Airlines quickly settled with the injured passenger for an undisclosed amount (think millions of dollars) and did an investigation. The internal review showed that outdated policies and procedures, which focused more on operations and logistics than customers, put everyone in “impossible situations.” In a TV interview, Munoz called the incident “a system failure across the board.”
When releasing its internal review, Munoz added that, “Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what’s right. This is a turning point for all of us at United and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline. Our customers should be at the center of everything we do and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust...” (The bold and underline format in the quote were added by me.)
So do not think of standard operating procedures as the answer to all. They should be treated as living documents. Otherwise, an organization cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees. Constantly challenge whether procedures are applicable in each situation and modify as necessary. Are the SOPs still in line with your organization's core values, goals, and mission statement? Empower your people to use common sense but remember: “Common sense does not mean that it is common practice”.
Finally, if in doubt, apply the "NY Times sniff test": If the actions were publicized on the front page of the NY Times newspaper, would you and your organization be proud of it? If the actions protected or enhanced your organization's brand and reputation and you weren't ashamed of the publicity - then you probably did the right thing.
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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