It’s the Process, Stupid!

Those of you who have my read my blog or my books know that I consider Westerners to have a largely deductive worldview while the Chinese have a largely inductive worldview. As a result, Westerners, particularly corporations, worship rules and processes. The Chinese tend to ignore them and focus solely on results. (Have you ever driven a car there?)

Technology, of course, has only worsened the Western obsession with rules. Computers allow us to codify the rules and remove any flexibility to ignore them or work around them. The computers rule. The workers are merely there to carry out their demands.

I recently came face to face with this new normal and it convinced me that this infatuation is costing the US economy billions of dollars in revenues and completely frustrating the customer at the same time. Ask any ten people you know if customer service has improved in the US and I’m betting the majority will say, “Are you kidding? Nobody cares about the customer anymore.”

Employees, on the other hand, have bought into the rules obsession. In part that’s because it has been drummed into them and they know they could lose their job if they knowingly ignore corporate policy. In part it’s just easier. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to make judgments. You just follow the rules. It’s far more stressful to actually have to work with customers than it is to sit at a computer all day.

As I have written previously I just moved into a new townhome in the US. And it has no shades or curtains on any of the windows. I don’t like the resulting transparency. And my neighbors certainly don’t like it. It’s inconvenient to say the least.

So I went to one of the big box American DIY stores and ordered window shades for my entire townhome and signed up for the installation service. And paid, of course, the entire amount up front.

They said it would take about two weeks for the window treatments to arrive and when they did I was to call them and schedule installation. That seemed like an awful long time to me given that these were all standard shades from one of the biggest companies in the business and the windows in my townhome are all a standard size.

But, after a moment of longing for China, where the shades probably would have been installed that day, I went on my way.

Two weeks have now passed and all but two of the shades have arrived. All of the shades for the bedrooms, which is really where I need them most, are here, sitting on my living room floor.

So I went to the famous big box American retailer and asked if the installer couldn’t come and install what I have. At least then I can sleep in a little in the morning and the neighbors don’t have to watch my bedroom routines. (It’s actually been very inconvenient as I have gone out of my way to be discreet while changing clothes and such.)

When I posed my query, however, a manager at the huge retailer, who can’t be more than twenty-five years old, immediately told me that they would not schedule any installation until all of the blinds were there. Period. And she pretty much snapped at me, like I was being a total pain in the _ss.

No discussion. She immediately went back to her computer where she was undoubtedly fulfilling the requirements of some corporate process, leaving me there to ponder my unfortunate circumstances.

I wanted to say, “How about if I give the installer an extra $10,000 in cash to come out a second time?” I didn’t, however. I could tell it would only make her even more condescending and she might even get me kicked out of the store.

Here’s how this would have played out in China, however.

The installer would have come to my home every time a shade was delivered – by choice – because he doesn’t get paid until he installs the shades (He doesn’t work for the store; he’s an independent contractor.) and he knows intuitively that cash flow is what business is all about.

Under any circumstances the manager would have discussed options and attempted to bargain a mutually acceptable solution. “We don’t normally do that but I understand how inconvenient your situation must be and I’ll send the installer out if you’re willing to pay an extra $100 for his travel time.”

And I would have. I’m smart enough to know that there is a cost for the installer to travel to my home and I would have gladly paid the fee in exchange for a little privacy.

But that didn’t happen.

Perhaps what bothered me most, however, was that the manager was more than a little smug about the whole thing. ‘There, I’ve enforced the rules because I have that power. You’re only a customer. My boss will be very happy with me and you – while, I don’t care. You can’t get me promoted.’

Having lived in both China and the US I can tell you that American business is leaving a lot of money on the table. People don’t want to shop. It’s a pain in the butt. And it’s no wonder that when they do shop they increasingly go online to do so.

Where does it all end? The processes will eventually take over and we won’t need stores or the people they employ any more. They won’t be able to do anything even if they are there.

Or some enterprising and practical young man or woman (maybe an immigrant) will finally figure it all out and develop a business model with few systems and even fewer processes. He or she will have to trust their employees, of course, but I’ll bet those employees will generate twice the revenue the current process-slaves do.

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for my shades. Or, more to the point, my neighbors are still waiting for my shades.

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