When a Process Doesn't Work

by Ron Rosenberg


Hand Holding Survival Multi-functional Wallet Card Tool On White BackgroundI'll start by saying that I'm a big fan of processes.

I ran a Quality Management group in my "previous corporate life" that successfully achieved an ISO-9000 registration; we currently have detailed processes for every aspect of our business now, and I have no problem whatsoever when the pilots flying me to Atlanta take time to go through the detailed pre-flight checklist.

Processes, policies, and procedures are important and all have their place in any business setting. They let you present a consistent level of service; they make it easy to train new employees, and they provide a strong foundation upon which to improve everything you do.

But there are times when the process prevents you from doing the right thing, and other times when the process completely fails at its intended purpose.

Welcome to the Columbus Airport!

I was returning home from a successful multi-city trip, and had a morning flight home from my last stop in Columbus, OH.

As many of you know, I travel quite a bit and have healthy frequent-flyer balances on two airlines. And, as you might suspect, I have a process - in this case, a checklist - that I use to make sure I have everything I need with me to present my programs.

The point is that, with very minor variations, I have the same collection of items in my rollaboard case and computer bag every time I pass through a TSA checkpoint at any given airport.

And whenever the image on the X-ray machine causes the screener to do a double-take, I can almost always explain what they're looking at - be it the promotional items I show to my audiences (silver platters, miniature trash cans, etc.), the various cables I bring, or the backup batteries I use to keep my devices charged up.

This time, however, it wasn't any of these items that got their interest - they said they were looking for a blade of some kind.

Look Out - He Has a Knife!

I know better than to pack a large pocket knife in my carry-on luggage, so I was a little curious about what it was they thought they had seen.

After rummaging through every compartment of my computer bag, they finally found what they were looking for: a very small pocket utility kit exactly like the one in the image at the top of this article.

These are fairly common promotional items, printed with a company's logo and contact information, and given away at tradeshow booths.

Yes, there is a small knife in there, but the blade is pretty dull and only about 1/2" in length.

But I've Traveled with These Items for Years!

I was pretty certain that I had read a TSA update from several years earlier that small knives with blades of three inches and less were allowed on the plane, and I asked the agent about this. She said that rule hadn't actually been approved and implemented.

I pointed out that I had traveled about 20 times in the last few months and that little kit - including the small knife - had also traveled successfully with me through about a dozen different TSA airport checkpoints.

Does that mean the staff at the other airports weren't doing their jobs properly? She answered that she couldn't speak for any other team, but the item wasn't getting through at the Columbus airport.

I explained that I appreciated the concern for safety, but also pointed out that the flight attendants on the plane gave us sharp metal knives with four-inch blades as part of the meal service - clearly, those could do more harm than the item she was dutifully preventing me from bringing on that very same plane.

Again, no good answer, only an offer to take the item back to the ticket counter and have it checked through to my final destination.

What About the Scissors?

I realized that I wasn't going to get anywhere trying to point out the irony of these rules when I noticed that she hadn't removed the small scissors you can see in the photo above.

Don't you need to take the scissors also? No, she explained, scissors were permitted. But aren't they sharp bladed items like knives?  Yes, but scissors are approved.

Just out of curiosity, I asked what length of scissors were permitted. After checking with a manager, she said that we could bring any scissors as long as the length from the hinge to the tip of the blade didn't exceed three inches.

I'm particularly fond of the saying that "the only good thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels good when you stop." So I realized that there would be no point whatsoever in pointing out how utterly ridiculous this was since she had fallen back on the "I don't make the rules." explanation.

What Does This All Mean for You?

My purpose here isn't to criticize the TSA, but merely to provide some examples for you to consider as you work on your own processes, and to give you three specific areas to address:

First, do you even have processes for key areas of your business? Without a process, the quality of your products and services will be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on exactly who on your team is involved.

Second, do your processes actually succeed in meeting the purpose for which they were created? An airport-safety process that has loopholes as we've seen here does very little to make me feel safe.

Finally, do your processes have - built into them - guidelines for when it's okay to "go out of process" when it's the sensible thing to do?

Ultimately, processes are there to help you deliver the highest level of products and services to your customers, clients, and members, so make sure the processes are working for you, and not the other way around.