It has been a long flight. The red-eye. Six hours. Finally, stumbling into the early morning sunlight, you're home. Well, almost home.
First, you have to get from Newark Airport to your house. And there, at six o'clock in the morning, is a 50-person-long line for a cab. To your left, 50 cabs. To your right, 50 tired people. And between them, causing the wait in line to take almost half an hour, is one dispatcher.
Of course, the dispatcher is doing her best, but it's painfully obvious that this process is broken. A long time ago, someone upstairs, a well-meaning bureaucrat, decided that this was the best way to prevent passengers from getting ripped off. Alas, the solution may be worse than the problem. The better fix would have been to find a different way to enforce the fare laws and just let people find cabs, and vice versa. But as long as the people who work there are afraid to fix what's broken about their knee-jerk solution to a legitimate problem, that's unlikely to happen.
Walk into your local Home Depot, and if it's like mine, you'll have trouble finding stuff. Sooner or later, you'll give up, settle for what you have, and then check out. On the way out, you face the final indignity. A security guard looks you up and down, assumes that you are a thief, then checks your receipt before allowing you to leave.
Instead of giving every customer the evil eye on the way out, what if Home Depot realized that its system was broken and stationed its very best employees in front of the cash registers? They could ask, "Did you find everything you were looking for?"
With help like that, there would be a huge increase in U-turns, with people heading back into the store to buy more stuff. The problem is that the company is focused on reducing shoplifting costs, not on fixing the experience.
What about tollbooths? If you live in the Northeast, you know that bridges almost always have tolls, which were originally put in place to pay for the bridges. But do we need tolls today? For every dollar collected on the George Washington Bridge, the government is effectively taxing the people waiting in line. That's at least several dollars in wasted time. You lose the time, but the government gains nothing. There's probably no less efficient way to collect a tax (and that's what a toll is) than making people wait anywhere from five minutes to an hour to pay a few bucks to use a small piece of road. There are dozens of ways to fix this and other things that are broken — ways that save everyone time and money. But we don't.
We don't for two reasons. The first is sad indeed: The people working on these projects forget to look at the world through the eyes of the user. They forget to try to open the CD cases that they're sealing shut with plastic. They forget to try to use their Web site or navigate the voice mail that they're designing. They don't look at the form that they're creating to consider that once the computer knows a zip code, the user shouldn't have to type in a city and state. They assume that users will be patient — or, worse yet, that those users have no other choice but to sit still and tolerate poor treatment.
The second reason is that the people in the trenches — those who bear the abuse and see the hassle these policies cause — have no way of doing anything about it. Senior management refuses to compute the costs of the broken policies. As a result, they never realize just how much they'd save by fixing what's broken. The people closest to the problem aren't given a chance to offer solutions because the boss is too arrogant to ask them, "If you were in charge, what's the first way you'd make this place work better for our customers?"
Disney got the message. After 40 years of making people stand in line (lots of lines) at its parks, Disney woke up and instituted Fastpass, which allows visitors to reserve a spot in line and eliminate the wait. An astonishing 95% of its visitors like the change. "We have reinvented how to visit a park," Disney VP Dale Stafford told a reporter. "We have been teaching people how to stand in line since 1955, and now we are telling them they don't have to. Of all the things we can do and all the marvels we can create with the attractions, this is something that will have profound influence on the entire industry."
Hey, you can fix your industry, too. It just takes the patience to see what's broken and the guts to change it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.