Creative Leadership

Is Your Organization a Slave to Computers?

Sometimes employees have to make decisions on the fly...

So my wife Kathleen and I go to Islands Restaurant here in Los Angeles tonight and order a couple of burgers. Kathleen has a coupon in her bag for a free order of fries, but we both prefer onion rings. So we ask the waiter if we can use the coupon, and pay the upgrade difference for the onion rings. He says fine, so we order.

A few minutes later he comes back to tell us the “computer” won’t allow the upgrade. He even gets the manager involved and the manager agrees. “Sorry. The computer won’t let us do it.”

So a local restaurant can’t honor their coupon, charging extra for an upgraded item on the menu? That’s apparently correct. No overrides, no added orders, no upgrades – even if the company stands to make extra money – not to mention the customer is happier.

That’s the sad state of affairs that business has gotten into today. No more individual thinking, no new ideas – only what the computer says. I’m assuming there’s a good side to all of this – that perhaps not allowing any “creative” ordering keeps the staff from scamming money from the company.

But the result is that the customer doesn’t get what he wants – even if he’s willing to pay more, and – the company doesn’t make the extra money.

Is that true in your organization? Have you allowed IT to control your company? Even if you believe (and probably correctly) that total computer control keeps employee theft down, I would encourage you to see the other side. Have you allowed for all options to keep the customer happy and getting what he or she wants? Have you allowed for those unusual situations where you could actually make extra money?

The airlines were at this impasse a few years ago (and sadly a few still are). Flights were leaving with empty seats in First Class – but rules were rules – no upgrades without the right price or official coupons. So finally, someone rather sharp set up the option of selling discounted First Class seats at the last minute at the gate. Sure it wasn’t the full fare, but the airline was getting extra money, plus making customers happy by filling up first class.

Think about the options. Computers are great tools, and we can’t live without them. But they don’t leave a lot of room for options unless we program those options in there. Be innovative, and “teach” your computers to do the same…

Are there other situations you’ve seen out there similar to this one?

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  1. You're right, Phil, about allowing managers and employees leeway in overriding the computer. A couple years ago I was waiting to catch my connecting flight – Denver to Pittsburgh on United. At the last minute at the gate they offered an upgrade to First class for $150 no matter what ticket you had in economy. I jumped on it. It seemed like a bargain for a 3 hr flight. Big seat, decent meal, free drinks, called me by my name. Everyone, as you pointed out, was happy – airline + customer had a win-win situation. The gate agent knew she had the permission to start selling seats, make some extra revenue and fill First class (so that coach class would open up for a booked flight). Smart. This issue of empowerment over technology goes deeper than just overriding the computer though. At the last ministry I worked at I empowered EVERYONE (even the PA) to make decisions they felt were correct. Responsibilities and work load were delegated. Got a problem with a graphic on a show? Go directly to the Avid editor. Wondered what tech specs were correct for the show in Hong Kong? Go to the Int'l Editor. Full permission to work laterally and vertically. Tell me about it later. The result was that workflow ran smoother, people felt like they had a piece of the action, problems got solved and staff grew more confident as they made decisions – even small ones – directly on their own. Everybody wins – especially the show. Did it always work? No. But you adjust as you go, like anything.

  2. Sometimes it's an issue of trust. Recently, I was asked by a church to come help their full-time employee use a program I was familiar with. I realized he wasn't working with the latest version and attempted to download and install it to find out it required a special password. That's when I found out the employee was a "Guest" on his own computer (he was the only one who used it) and required a special dispensation to do almost anything he'd need to do with this program! CF, it's too bad they don't have you there.

  3. Thanks Brian. It just makes sense to empower people to make decisions that are in their sphere of work and influence. It's smart, built on trust and spreads the workload. But it takes a progressive, confident group to let this dynamic work. As for "CF, it's too bad they don't have you there…", well, I am now a "free agent" and open to offers. 🙂

  4. Does the computer walk in, order and put out the money that pays everybody’s salaries? Does the restaurant advertise to get computers to do that?

  5. HA! I once worked at a place where I had a similar problem. People would come with coupons that were perfectly good, but since the computer wouldn't allow it because it was different or older I had to look like an idiot in front of the customer. It's difficult egotistically to admit to a customer that the real boss is the computer in the corner. I hate it.

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