The Executioner’s Dilemma

Good employees are not enough. We have to design the failures out of our systems

My friend Don plays at a golf course here in town, where he has been a member for almost 10 years. As part of his membership, Don opted for the additional service of having his clubs stored at the golf course, where his clubs are waiting for him when he arrives at the course for his pre-booked tee time. 

That’s the theory. Over the past year with that service, Don’s clubs have been waiting for him exactly twice. Early on, someone from the pro shop would hustle out when Don arrived to retrieve his clubs, apologizing for not having them ready. Lately, Don picks up the clubs himself and carries on.

Unfortunately, such situations are too common and written off as service blunders or the work of less than ideal employees. In fact, the people at this golf course are excellent, and most firms do their best to hire good people. Some might say it’s hard to find reliable employees; I don’t buy it. There is a simpler reason for situations like Don’s, but let’s look at two more examples first.

A System That’s Grounded

In early May, I attended the Production and Operations Management Society’s annual conference in Orlando. I flew to and from Orlando with WestJet, arguably one of the top service airlines in North America. WestJet staff do love their jobs, and the good mood on a WestJet flight is generally contagious. 

My flights were over meal times. I have been shut out of the meal process in the past (with WestJet and other airlines) when the food carts ran out of meals before they arrived at my row. So when WestJet sent me an email two days prior to travelling with an opportunity to pre-book my meal, I jumped at it. 

On both flights, the meal was indeed on the airplane, but the attendants had no idea who it belonged to. When the cart arrived at my row, I indicated I had pre-ordered. “Oh, you’re the one! Thank goodness you said something. Dave, the Thai Chicken sandwich is for 6C.” 

It seems to me that it would be more challenging logistically to get the right food on the right flight than it would to put a sticker on that sandwich – “Give this to the good looking guy in 6C” – yet the second step never happened. Pre-ordering a meal is not new; usually, you receive a pre-ordered meal before the cart moves up the aisle.

Our customers are not here for our great employees; they are here for our processes

Next, consider my experience with the building and supply chain Rona. We bought a new vanity on the weekend from the local store. Its inventory system showed one unit left, and that I could pick it up in the “yard.” After waiting some time for the yard representative to be available, I was led to where the vanities were stored. The section with my part number was empty – no vanity. After 10 minutes, we were told there were none of that model available. OK, inside I went to see what we could do.

I tracked down the manager, who apologized and offered to order the unit. Anxious to get at the project, I asked that he check with another Rona 15 minutes away. He looked at their inventory – yes, they had one unit left! I asked him to call the store to ensure the unit was actually there, which he did. But Store 2 could not find the unit.

Our next step was to order the unit, and we received an email confirmation that the unit would arrive two days later. Two days passed and we received another email indicating the unit would not arrive for two more weeks. I was finally able to secure one of the vanities from another Rona store an hour from where we live. Yes, I’m stubborn.

There are two common elements to these stories. The first is that all three organizations have good people. All were friendly, engaging, and trying hard to do their jobs effectively. All were apologetic when things did not go well, and all did their best to solve the problem. 

The second element is that good people are not enough. In each of these examples, the organizations either had no process with which to execute (the golf course and WestJet), or their process was broken (inventory management at Rona). Without a functional process, good people are forced to solve a problem. Too many problems and excess problem solving and you drive customers away.

Service Profit Chain

In 1994, Jim Heskett, Earl Sasser Jr., and Leonard Schlesinger published a framework called the Service Profit Chain, which effectively connected the recruiting and training of the right employees to customer satisfaction and then growth and profit. That is, find the best people available and develop and train them, and they will put smiles on customers’ faces. 

I agree with the relationships expressed in the Service Profit Chain but the missing link to me has always been how those employees “work” – our processes and organizational design. In fact, our customers are not here for our great employees; they are here for our processes. Ultimately, our customers are buying our execution, and not much else.

Processes come in a myriad of forms and levels of complexity, and admittedly can be the most difficult element of our operations to design and implement. In its simplest form, a process can be an if-then cause-and-effect relationship. When Don’s name shows up on the tee-time reservation, send one of the lads to retrieve his clubs 30 minutes before the reservation. This can be an electronic signal, easily part of most reservation systems (a flag next to Don’s name), or manual, where someone scans the day’s reservations every morning and makes a list of golf bags to bring out and at what time.

A Training or Process Issue?

At Rona, it is difficult to say whether the problem relates to warehouse management (product in the wrong places), the point-of-sale system (inventory not accurately relieved when a part is sold), or some other issue. In each of the three locations I dealt with, however, Rona’s online system indicated there was inventory of that particular vanity; only one of the three actually had the unit. Multi-location inventory systems with thousands of parts are obviously complex, but retailers for the most part have figured out this problem years ago.

WestJet’s issue was a breakdown between the catering company and the airline cabin staff. The pre-order process is relatively new at WestJet, with the added complexity of implementing the system in the many locations the airline flies. As long as the caterer has its act together, however, it should be a relatively simple process for the flight manifest to include any special situations or requests that are part of the passengers’ reservations or, in this case, food orders. For example, the guest in 3B is a very frequent flyer; 16C has mobility issues and will wait for a wheelchair; 6C ordered the Thai Chicken sandwich.

Think about the last customer comments or complaints your organization may have received. If the issue was the result of a process not being followed, that is a training and, possibly, recruiting issue. If it feels like something may have fallen through the cracks, however, that is your process.

Good people are not enough. We have to design the failures out of our system.


Barry Cross is adjunct assistant professor at Smith School of Business and co-author, with Kathryn Brohman, of Project Leadership: Creating Value with an Adaptive Project Organization.


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Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
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