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It’s the Process Problem! – Part I


I Recently heard a customer service failure story. Passengers on one of the leading Indian airlines found that the flight times had changed. They came to know about this change when they called a couple of days in advance to confirm their reservations. The new scheduled time was earlier, meaning people who didn’t call could have missed their flight. No one from the airline had bothered to inform the passengers about the change.

When I posted this on one of the Indian Internet forums I visit, a bunch of rants followed. They included name calling to the airline, name calling to staff, name calling to politicians, etc. etc. Invariably comparisons with foreign airlines followed. Soon the topic digressed in passionate, but irrelevant , and definitely fruitless discussion.

While everyone was busy looking for a scapegoat to blame, no one really talked about one important thing. Process. We all could be doing the right thing, working hard, and still could fail if the process we are following is flawed.

There is a very good example of process failure I came across once. I heard this from my friend. Two people, who had recently learned sailing skill, had taken their boat out in the sea. When they were practicing sailing, something fell down from the boat into the sea. Both of them jumped to grab it. But wind was blowing and it started carrying the boat away from these sailors faster than they could swim towards it. They were in deep trouble, but were luckily rescued by some other boat which just happened to be around.

There is an age old process they forgot to follow. “Captain leaves last”. The moment there were more than one people on the boat, they should have designated one as captain. And that person should not leave the boat unless in danger. That is the universal practice and it has many advantages. The intention behind naming someone as captain is not to honor them, but to designate a role. Once we have roles, we can design protocols. And that takes a lot of uncertainty out.

Both the sailors in the story above were good men trying to do the right thing, the good thing. But goodness is not enough. It’s the lack of discipline, lack of process that could have killed them.

Many of us are not going to go sailing. But still we could take lesson from this. How about creating a process for traveling on train with kids. A simple dictum like “Mother leaves train first, Father leaves last”, could be a defined process.

Back to the Indian airline story , certainly there are good people working there, and no one there is happy to put passengers in trouble. But it’s the lack of coherent process that is leading to this flaw. Certainly some other change, not previously anticipated, drove the change in flight time. What they need is effective change handling process. Someone in customer service should be alerted on time change. This person should make sure that the customers are called and confirmations that the customers are called should be entered in the system. And the flight crew should not accept working on that flight unless they see that the confirmation that the customers are notified, because otherwise the crew will be dealing with customer wrath.

2 Responses

  1. To extend your point a little bit, it is my view that most people would do the right thing, provided three criteria are met:

    – A simple process is established (you made the point well)
    – One doesn’t have to go through hoops to adopt it
    – It is enforced with discipline.

    Without these three, it is everybody for themselves. Whether it is airline employees or travellers.

    Often the processes are knee-jerk reactions solely to cover somebody’s rear. Without a genuine focus on the target group, processes are useless and may end up as means for powers-be to harass or exploit.

  2. […] part i of this post series, I discussed importance of process thinking. When I talk about […]

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