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Fighting Fires

I was working as a sales manager for a Fortune 500 bank a few years ago when I received a telephone call from a longtime customer. Jim called me to report that his company's checking account statement arrived with the envelope unsealed and he was justifiably upset. He was naturally concerned that something could have fallen out in the mail, but more alarming was the thought of one of his employees being tempted to peak inside at the account balance or cancelled paychecks. I promised Jim I would address the problem.

Like all large banks, we processed our statements on an automated stuffing machine. The statement processing area's manager admitted that Jim's experience was not unique. There was apparently a problem with the machine's component that "licked" the envelopes; the amount of moisture applied to the flap was inconsistent, so some envelopes did not seal properly. The machine manufacturer's local technician had tried several remedies, without success. However, the manager promised to flag Jim's account and process his statement by hand, thereby ensuring he would never again receive an unsealed envelope.

The next month, Jim called me again. This time he reported that his statement did indeed arrive in a sealed envelope. However, someone at the bank had taped the flap to make sure it stayed closed. I explained our problem to Jim and told him that we were providing his statement special attention. "I don't want special attention," he said. "I just want my envelope sealed."

I went back to the statement manager for an update on the machine's repair. The technician was at a loss and didn't know when he could fix the "licker." In the meantime, we decided to change tactics. We would send Jim's statement via UPS, replacing the envelope with a securely wrapped package. That would certainly satisfy Jim.

Of course it didn't. His call the following month described how his shipping clerk, who opens all of the parts and raw materials that arrive in the company's daily UPS shipments, opened his statement along with the other packages. Our "fix" had caused Jim's worst fear to come true--one of his employees saw the company's confidential bank information. "Look," said Jim. "I appreciate the manual efforts to send my statement intact. But I run a steel processing company that employs dozens of machines. When one breaks down, we don't process the steel by hand. We fix the machine. That's all I'm asking you to do."

Jim had delivered a wake-up call. Our statement-stuffing machine was not the only thing broken. So was our approach to solving problems. Rather than attacking the root cause of problems, we relied on the heroic creativity of front-line workers to find ways around them. As our problem solvers rushed from crisis to crisis, putting out fires along the way, they seldom completely fixed the problems--and the underlying causes remained.

Thanks to Jim's doggedness, we changed our approach to his concern. We contacted the statement stuffing machine's senior management and demanded a solution. They flew in a factory engineer who quickly recognized that the inconsistency was not with the licking device, but with the mechanism that pressed the moistened flap against the envelope. A few replaced parts solved the problem forever. The last I knew, Jim was still a bank customer.

Most organizations typically resolve problems inefficiently: a spur-of-the-moment diagnosis, followed by a hastily applied band-aid. But it's not just the solution that's wrong--it's the culture common in most companies that's not working. Watch for more to come on this subject.
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