I've reached that age where my wife and cardiologist have formed an unholy alliance to deprive me of my favorite junk foods. As such, travel to a meeting offers me multiple opportunities for surreptitious consuming of my favorite foods groups: bread, sugar and fat. I found the best delivery system for those edible essentials are donut holes. Once I clear airport security I head straight for them.
My last attempt to purchase these treats also provided me an incredible exemplar of institutional rigidity.
The following conversation is an almost verbatim exchange that took place less than a month ago between me, the cashier (DG = Donut Guy), then subsequently between me and his supervisor (DB = Donut Boss).
Me: I would like an order of donut holes and a medium coffee, please.
DG: (Glancing back at shelf) We only have two left.
Me: OK, I'll buy the two.
DG: You have to buy at least four.
Me: OK. I'll buy four.
DG: We have to sell you four minimum and we only have two.
Me: OK. I'll pay you for four and you just give me the two.
DG: We have to actually sell you four. I can't sell you just two.
Me: Can I talk to your supervisor?
DB: (Younger guy wearing a tie comes over) I'm the supervisor.
Me: May I buy the last two donut holes? I'll pay for four. I'll even buy an extra donut.
DB: No, it is strict policy. We have to sell a minimum of four.
Me: What are you going to do with those last two?
DB: We'll throw them away.
Me: Can you give them to me?
DB: No. We have to sell them.
Me: OK. I'll buy them. Tell me how much.
DB: I can only sell you a minimum of four.
Me: OK. Can I have two glazed donuts and a medium coffee?
Not Form Fitting
What I experienced may sound bizarre but if we really look hard into our own operations, we may be stunned just how frequently our members are told, "It's not our policy," with neither the employee nor the member understanding why something can't be done.
Nothing indicates this as much as the forms we make members sign. A decade ago, real estate lending at my credit union was a disaster. Title companies hated to see our closing documents. When I named a new real estate VP, she decided that a minimalist approach was needed. She looked at all of the real estate loan checklists and if the requirement for a particular form could not be exactly cited from the applicable regulation, then the form was eliminated. For example, at some point in our history, someone came up with a form for members to sign attesting that the signatures on the other forms were really their signatures. The new VP eliminated every form that did not have a hard requirement in a regulation. A billion-plus dollars in loans later, there has never been a file rejected by Fannie Mae or outside QC audits; and closing agencies love our streamlined packages.
More often than not, rigidity sets in when we cease trusting employees to make a good decision. My approach was to teach employees to always "lean towards the member" in any decision. But-above all-make a decision. It is an extremely rare mistake an employee makes that can't be fixed.
I experienced another example of rigidity last Christmas at a major retail bookseller. There was a long line at the cashier's station in the music and video section. At the front of the line an elderly gentleman was attempting to return an unopened music CD worth less than $10. He even had his store receipt. The cashier had to call a manager to authorize the return transaction and it took about 15 minutes for the manager to arrive on station. The line had grown to about 15 customers by then.
When I got to the head of the line, I asked the cashier how long she had worked there. She told me that she had been a year-round, part-time for over 14 years! Yet, she had no authority for simple $10 return.
Why You Should Fear Fear
My three decades in executive leadership taught me these levels of obsessive control are the symptom of much deeper problems-starting with senior management. The root cause is fear-a paralyzing fear where managers are more concerned about avoiding mistakes than getting the job done. In sports jargon, these managers never play to win; they play to not lose.
When was the last time you conducted focus groups with your tellers and front-line financial service advisors to find out where rigidity has set in? Oh, you say they won't open up and tell you what they think and feel?
I wonder why.
Edward Speed recently retired as the CEO of a $2 billion-asset credit union. He can be reached at email@example.com.