Rules and Self critical Management and Management by committee

“Tom Peters Ruined My Life” was the attention grabbing title of a recent Wall Street Journal article by Mary Baechler. After attending one of Peter’s talks about excellent customers service, Baechler, president of a company that makes strollers, began to reexamine the service she received as a customer and the services she and her employees gave to their customers. She liked less and less of what she saw, and she began to shop and to manage differently. In time, her accustomed patterns were, in her words, gone all ruined her comfortable methods were replaced by more effective ways of operating.

Baechler joins Peters and more and more managers and commentators in challenging organization members first to rethink how they relate to their customers and then to make this rethinking a regular part of their organizational practices. It is nothing short of passionate management by self criticism that they are advocating.

Baechler and Peters call our attention to a traditional view of customer relations whereby sellers act as if they had authority over their buyers. There are telltale signs of this attitude. If someone throws ‘It’s company policy in your face’, as a salesperson did to Baechler you are experiencing such a grab for power over you. If someone responds to your unusual request with “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for everybody” (and we wouldn’t do that, would we?) you are witnessing authority and rules being used as ends in themselves. As Baechler and Peters point out, these kinds of responses are roadblocks to mutually beneficial transactions between buyers and seller. Authority used in this way interferes with promising transactions.

An alternative approach is for managers and employees to ask themselves, What if we did things differently for this person, and the next person and the next? In this way managers and employees can critique their own rules as they proceed. It is tantamount to asking. Why do we operate by these rules? Certainly all organizations must operate according to rules and procedures. What Baechler and Peter propose is that managers and employees think carefully about the effects of the rules, they use for dealing with customers. If they do that routinely, chances are that their accustomed habits will be “ruined” too.

Baechler reports that the new kind of partnerships that she and her employees have created with customers has been accompanied by a new distribution of legitimate and expert power throughout the organization.

What does my business do differently now from what we did before Tom’s inspiration? Anyone in our company can stop production if he thinks there is a flaw. Any employee can send a stroller that’s on order Fed Ex (at $87 a pop) if he feels we have not met our delivery commitments. Beyond our lifetime guarantee for frames and one year guarantee on the wheels, our customer service people can do whatever it takes, up to $300 per customer, to make things right for the customer (we track costs religiously, so that we can keep this up).

Baechler and her colleagues are sharing power in their kind of “intelligent enterprise” as James Brian Quinn describes organizations that have a fundamental “service” focus. Quinn links new “intelligent enterprises” with a rethinking of authority and power.

All require a breaking away from traditional thinking about lines of command, one person one boss structures, the center as a directing force, and lower levels as mere tools for the delivery of wisdom from above.

Keep an eye out for the kids of customer service you receive, or give. Your life might just be “ruined” for the better!