How standards can stifle performance

The movie Office Space does a great job of highlighting how workplace rules and procedures can lead to poor performance. For some of us, the movie gets even better because some of the scenes resemble our own work experiences.  

Here’s one of my favorite scenes.  (I don’t know if the poster has authority to post it, so please email me if the clip disappears.  Also, please go buy a copy of the movie Office Space so everyone stays happy.)

I love this scene because Stan (the manager) wants better performance from Joanna but he doesn’t know how to describe it.  The conversation quickly becomes frustrating for both Stan and Joanna and there’s no real resolution at the end.  It’s a great example of what happens when we focus on a somewhat arbitrary standard rather than our true intent. 

Here are some more examples:

  • A call center rep may earn a 100% call monitoring score, but doesn’t solve the customer’s problem. 
  • A front desk agent at a hotel may hit all the brand standards at check-in, but sounds like a robot and doesn’t make the guest feel welcome. 
  • A salesperson may follow the sales script but fail to make the sale because she didn't listen carefully to the customer's answers.

Tasks vs. Outcomes

Many of the things we do at work resist being standardized in the same way you would standardize a widget production procedure in a factory.  A clear, step-by-step process makes sense for widgets since you want each one to be just like the others.  The problem we run into in a service environment is human interaction resists standardization.

I’m not an opponent of standardization, but we need to standardize human interaction in the right way.  If you call tech support to get help with a computer problem and tell the rep you have already rebooted your computer, why should he be required to ask you to reboot the computer?  The standard could be re-written so it asks the tech support rep to explore some basic fixes (like re-booting) before trying more complicated solutions. This gives him the flexibility to adapt to the situation and makes it more likely he helps you with your ultimate goal - getting your computer to work again.

Let’s go back to the video.  What does Stan really want Joanna to do?  He wants her to deliver on the Tchotchke’s promise of atmosphere and attitude.  How would he know if Joanna was doing this?  A good indicator might be if her guests are laughing and smiling.  Perhaps Stan should have discussed ways Joanna could better engage with her guests so they are smiling and laughing.

If you are an Office Space fan, I know what you are thinking. Joanna just wasn't cut out for working at Tchotchke's. In that case, at least Stan could have addressed her performance without getting hung up on a technicality like she was wearing the required pieces of flair!