Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On A Missed Delivery

Next time I need to ship something, I won't use Fedex. This is because of a simple error made by the person who attempted delivery of a package to me yesterday and left a Sorry We Missed You card. The error is that instead of writing the Airway Bill number on the card, he wrote my phone number instead. It did not take me long to recognize it. But, then after a maze of phone calls to different call centres and depots, I realized how de-humanized the system has become, and how this simple error can not be rectified. Now, the package has to be sent back and the original sender has to contact me again. What a waste of energy, time, every resource and disruption even, of businesses and even business relationship. I can think of a whole story plot that can come out of it. Even a possible title, Fedex fails to deliver.

But, this isn't funny. I am trying to laugh because I don't have a choice. There was no point being angry with anyone. The Call Centre workers could not do anything beyond they did, though I would have preferred them to show some sympathy than the awkward silence they offered me. I am not being able to get angry because I know the reason. This is a delivery man employed recently, possibly on a minimum wage, and had time for little training. He would not know a tracking number from a phone number for some time now. In the meantime, he will continue to destroy the image of Fedex as an efficient, professional organization, as his unintended actions will lead to more awkward silences at the other end of the phone line and expose the failure of the human system that every large organization wants to hide.

In the end, he would possibly be found out. Or, may not be, if Fedex has indeed decided to hire more people like him, and as, they may not have an idea whose leaving the SWMY cards at whose doorstep. Whatever it is, this person will be to blame, his education, his inattention and because he was a wrong recruit. It is the custom to individualize the failure and corporatize the success - that's what business schools teach. So, Fedex will survive; this individual may not.

But we live in strange times, and there is another perspective to it. My failed delivery came in the wake of Toyota recalling their prized Prius and Honda recalling some of their Civic sedans because they are not sure whether the airbags will actually work. The problem with quality has suddenly become deep and endemic. We have suddenly made the journey from the world of one error in a million to six million errors, from the mantra of continuous improvement to the life of daily disasters. It is a new world to live in, in some ways.

That does not create a lot of trust, does it? With Toyota, Fedex, Honda showing chinks in the armour, the whole magic mantra of branding looks somewhat dented. I am talking about the overwhelming belief that the brand is everything and the product does not matter. The whole image thing - think Accenture and Tiger Woods and you suddenly start getting some disturbing ideas about what happens in corporate consulting - and even the presumed idea of expertise, the idea of elevation of a group of people or a company on pedestal assuming they know best, looks shaky. The anti-brand is already a reality. The superbrand, Starbucks, is losing ground and their latest branding strategy is to unbrand, buying out and recreating locally named tea and coffee shops under the starbucks management. The whole system of modern business, of large, efficient corporation, a system larger than its people, suddenly appears to be without foundation.


I would not agree that we can't do anything about it. I would argue that lots of these problems occurred because we have left too much space to accountants and analysts, and forgot that the business is actually a human system. A group of people who make it together. The delivery boy of Fedex is Fedex to me, and neither the symbol nor the ticker sign will make it up for what he does.

And, funnily, I was almost expecting this to happen. This whole worldwide crisis of quality and service delivery was bound to happen, and this one missed delivery isn't the end of it. Last twenty four months have seen some of the most brutal cost cuttings in history, and people were let go. The training budgets were hacked off. And, it was not just the large companies. I have had so many conversations with small businessowners who have said people is the problem. People is the problem?? Indeed, they were easier to let go - people and training - than offices and accountants. Or, even the marketing, which somehow wriggled its way out of trouble proclaiming that marketing is absolutely vital for recovery. Sales is everything, isn't it so? A failed delivery surely did not matter.


I hope you are getting the point. I am saying that the modern businesses have gone too far in being a brand and less a community. They have pushed the individual too far down the barrel. For all the good words, the essential disconnect, no, alienation is the word, of the people from the work they do, gets exposed every time a crisis occur. And, crisis keeps occurring because people and businesses keep moving away further and further as a result.

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