Article Revised: March 27, 2019
Let’s say you were a modern day Dr. Frankenstein and you decided you wanted to bring an organizational creature to life. Let’s further say you were a nefarious Dr. Frankenstein and the organizational creature you wanted to bring to life was one that continuously produced errors…lots of them…day in and day out. What would go into the design of an error-producing organizational machine?
First, you would have hundreds of detailed processes that the people in the organization would be expected to perform. Forcing people to execute lots of different process with lots of details increases the probability of errors.
Second, you would not define a standard of what constituted the correct way to do each of those processes. Some processes would be defined. Others would not. Some processes would ostensibly be defined, but people in the organization would disagree about what really was the correct disposition. When “correct” is not clear, errors can bloom.
Third, you would have those processes change frequently. Big changes and little changes…just constant process changes. This keeps the workers off-balance and increases the chance of errors.
Fourth, you would have poor change control mechanisms. Processes would change but the changes would not always be effectively communicated. There would be no master register of changes and no way to effectively determine if all of the updated processes were being correctly followed. The lack of effective process performance feedback is great for error making.
Finally, on the process side, you would minimize the amount of automation available to help workers get the details correct. If something had to be drilled they would have to do it by hand. No machine to help employees get the exact size hole in the exact spot. If there were a lot of details to remember, people would just have to suck it up and remember them. Further, the job aides you did give them would not work well together. Having old legacy systems that require a lot of cutting and pasting increases the chances for errors.
Let’s move onto the people in this error-producing organization. A seventh characteristic of a well-designed error making organization would be a low hiring standard. No college degree required, no employment tests to assess baseline competency. The lower end of the labor pool is best for higher errors.
After hiring low quality workers, give them poor training. The training around the processes would be incomplete and the acceptable performance standard for completing the training would be low. An adequate demonstration of basic competence (70% passing score…which of course is 30% errors) would be enough. Having poorly trained and mediocre workers makes for really high errors.
Next signal to them that they are low quality by keeping them on a tight leash…make it known that you know when they are a minute late coming back from breaks and lunches…ask them what is wrong if they are in the bathroom too much. Further send this “you’re completely replaceable” message by telling them that there is a large pool of applicants waiting for their job.
It also helps if you can make the work itself super boring and repetitive. There is nothing that drives errors better than a boring repetitive job as it leads to steps getting skipped. Oh and make the environment randomly stressful by, say, workers getting yelled at by customers. High fatigue and stress are great for errors.
Finally, don’t pay the workers that well. Low wages and no variable compensation for higher performance. When everyone gets the same no matter how they do and pay is based on tenure, which is another way of saying how long they last, it really helps people not care which feeds the error machine.
And speaking of tenure…since the jobs are boring and stressful, and the workers don’t feel valued, they quit…frequently. We don’t care about them quitting, because as we told them, “there is more where you came from.” We want high turnover because it means lots of inexperienced employees which is like oil for the error-machine.
What do you think of our design? How could an organization designed like this not be a world class error-machine?
This is not a dystopian vision of some “Breaking Bad” science fiction future. No, this error-making organization exists today. In fact there are lots of them and they have been around for years. It’s known as a call center.
I am not trying to be Debbie Downer here. I am trying to shed light on the fact that the 40-year old paradigm for the design and management of call centers almost guarantees a high error rate. A call center leader who doesn’t believe her/his organization is an error machine is just plain struthious.
It, of course, doesn’t have to be this way. The fixes are right in front of us…just do the opposite of what you would do in the design of the error-machine.
The problem is all of those activities drive up short-term costs and many of today’s call center leaders can’t see past that. It is analogous to when American managers visited Japanese plants in the 80’s where they couldn’t believe that employees had the power and were encouraged to “stop the line” to fix quality problems. They couldn’t see that the long term cost reductions due to the increase in quality far outweighed the short-term cost increase of interrupting the production run.
One fix with immediate ROI is allowing the agents to use automation. I go into detail in this post Can a Focus on Getting Calls Right Have the Far-reaching Benefits Just-in-Time Had? listing all the sources of financial return that come with defining “correct” and using automation to ensure the agents handle each call correctly.
There is a lot of talk these days about creating amazing customer service experiences and getting the front-line agents to turn customers into zealots à la Zappos. I think for many companies and call types, this is the right direction. But before we ask our agents to love our customers to death, isn’t it important that our agents know how to correctly resolve the customers’ concerns…the correct diagnostic questions, the correct resolution steps, the correct prices, the correct return address, entering the correct information, providing the correct disclosures…not some of the time, but every time? Can you really fall in love with a car brand that delivers a great service experience if your car is constantly breaking down?