Creative Leadership

When “I’m Sorry, That’s Just Our Policy” – Kills Organizations

I was flying to Australia.  The flight was two hours late leaving Los Angeles because of high winds in New York where it originated, but they finally turned it around and we all boarded at 1:15am LA time.  When we sat down in Business Class, they had an extensive custom menu form to fill out – two pages worth.  It was nice, and allowed us to order what we wanted when we wanted it.  But after taking the time for Kathleen and I (and the rest of the passengers) to fill out the forms, I handed it to the flight attendant who said, “We won’t be doing the custom menu this evening.”

I asked why and he said that because of the two hour delay, they had already started cooking the normal food and they didn’t have time for the custom menu.  I asked, “So since the flight was delayed from New York, you already knew this would happen?”  “Yes sir,” was his reply.  I responded, “So why did you put a custom menu on every seat?  First it’s a lot of work filling it out, and second, it’s a big letdown for the passengers to find out it’s not available.”

His reply: “I’m sorry sir, but handing the menus out is our policy.”

Then it came time to sleep, and our cabin turned into a freezer.  I fly about 150,000 miles a year and this may have been the coldest flight I’ve experienced. It wasn’t just us – our cabin looked like a homeless encampment, with passengers spreading blankets everywhere. Looks like I’d land with a sore throat even though I’m speaking at a conference.  This time, I asked about some heat.  “We’ll check on it sir.”  But he said it with a slight roll of his eyes as if he’d heard that before.  At that moment another attendant walked up and said “I just adjusted it, and can smell the heat coming on in the cabin.”  But she gave him a sly glance and they both slightly smiled, as if I was a complete idiot.

Heat?  It apparently isn’t their policy.  We continued with the blankets.

Every organization has policies, but it’s not the policy that matters, it’s the customer or donor.  Any company that allows policies rather than circumstances to dictate their actions is heading in the wrong direction. Now obviously there are over-arching policies that deal with safety and security in every company, but dinner menus and heated cabins don’t qualify.

Think.  Don’t become a policy clog in the machine.  Do what’s right, even when circumstances force you to improvise.

Now don’t get me started on the highly promoted “power plugs at every seat” that turn out to only power a laptop when the computer is turned off.…..   🙂

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  1. Phil,
    I know its a bit late now, but on behalf of us Aussies, let me apologise for the treatment you and Kathleen received on Qantas – hard to argue with your logic. Let’s hope the warm reception this week at CMA will go someway towards making up for it.



  2. Makes sense. But if you’re fired, demoted or punished for using your common sense, you soon learn to “stick to the corporate policy”. No one ever got fired for sticking to policy. Companies with that sort of organisational culture deserve to lose customers, and their good staff know it.

  3. I strongly agree with you, except on one point:

    “Any company that allows policies rather than circumstances to dictate their actions is heading in the wrong direction.”

    As a person, a company, or a church, you must not let circumstances dictate your actions. Your principles should dictate your actions. If one of your guiding principles is “overdeliver for the customer”, this will be revealed in unique ways during unique circumstances. But it must not be the circumstances themselves that control you, or no one will know what you stand for.

    I agree with the previous comment about organizational culture. This problem occurs when a company grades its employees on following policy rather than following principle, allowing policies to subvert the principles they were designed to uphold. Pharisees, anyone?

  4. Loved it and just posted it on my facebook and twitter. You know that there is a problem when a company that has been in business for years states, “This is the way we have done it for decades and this is within industry standards”. The whole “this is the way we have done it for decades” should have been their first clue that they need help. Do they still have rotary phones??? Companies need to wise up and learn to put the customer first because some other company is waiting to take their place asap!!!

  5. Just got back from another stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Fantastic race this year.

    After establishing the practice of giving every customer a “pickle” and learning the concept that “everything speaks,” I do wonder, in our current economic state, just how some companies are keeping their doors open.

    Sounds like the airlines lost sight of “everything speaks” and you didn’t get your pickle.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree that all too frequently “policy” or “the system” prevents good customer service, and that should be changed whereever possible. However, this sometimes needs to be intelligently balanced with the cost of doing so. For example, we have one donor (out of 500,000+) who demands special treatment that our software simply can’t do. That forces a manual process (i.e. costly) for a relatively small donation. The net gain is small. Think creatively, work with the donor/customer, and attempt to find win-win solutions.

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