Processes and improbabilities

FRAMINGHAM (10/24/2003) - After last week's column about business-process insanity described through the tale of a Dell Inc. customer who had to return a computer to get a sales price on the same machine, reader Mark Mushkin wrote: "It's the sad reality of our big-corporate-big-picture world that makes this the norm. In corporate terms, how much would it cost to change an internal process vs. (what it cost Dell to take the computer back and ship out another one at the lower price)? My guess is the loss is small potatoes compared with the actual cost of a process change."

Absolutely right. It is always a costly exercise to analyze and re-engineer internal business processes. The philosophy in many organizations is along the lines of if it ain't completely broke, don't even think about fixing it. Or to put that another way, if it is slightly broken, leave it alone.

Now I'm sure that this philosophy seems rational to many people. But the problem with this way of thinking - of ignoring anything that isn't an undeniable disaster - is that disregarded problems are never solitary; they are always part of a constellation of problems.

It is like ignoring a pothole in the road because it isn't big enough to swallow a car. And along with that, ignoring the fallen tree branch, the dropped bricks and the oil spill. Each is not a disaster in and of itself, but seen as a whole, the road can hardly be considered usable.

And what happens when you have lots of overlooked minor problems is that you can easily find your situation reaches a point where, because of a single event, everything suddenly turns to chaos. A gasoline truck swerves to avoid the branch, skids on the oil, turns over because of the pothole, and the bricks rip the gas tank and boom! The entire street goes up in flames.

Reader Herbert DuPree wrote to point out that, "Dell won't know or care about this because it's presently the exception and not the rule. If they were losing real cash on this . . . they would pay attention. It also (needs) to have enough of these complaints to make a difference."

DuPree's point about complaining is interesting. I contend that the explosion of automated corporate telephone and e-mail systems is training us to not complain because they make it so hard to do so and ultimately reward us with no satisfaction.

It is always the same: You have a problem with a product or service so you call the customer service number. After you navigate a score of options, loop around the prompt system a few times, try hitting zero or hash (with no result) in the hope of getting to a human being, you finally (after the hold from hell) reach a customer service representative only to find that the rep can do nothing helpful and can't pass you on to anyone other than his supervisor, who has an educational level just above kindergarten and the personality of a brick.

As for e-mail customer service and support, what a joke! I have found perhaps a handful of organizations that have any competence when it comes to e-mail support.

Typically any kind of e-mail service or support is simply a huge black hole. I suspect that once your message crosses the messaging event horizon it immediately drops out of the universe and appears as spam in an alternate universe.

Perhaps we get much of our spam the same way - customer service and support messages drop out of other universes into this one and through some strange consequence of quantum physics appear in our mail systems in Earth languages offering body part enlargement or photos of hot mature women. That would certainly explain the bizarre message I got yesterday that appeared to be an ad in Russian for a pizza parlor in Moscow.

Then again, is that more improbable than companies addressing their inefficient business processes?

Answers to backspin@gibbs.com.

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