As I contemplate changes I need to make to better serve my customers during the coming new year, I can’t help but reflect on Newton Merton, and all the rest who take credit for “The Law of Unintended Consequences." Essentially, this universal law (that everyone takes credit for) states that every action will create more unintended consequences than intended ones.
Here’s an example: A friend of mine checked into a hotel. He needed some cash, but it was after banking hours. The hotel policy limited him to a $50 check cash.
It is a dumb policy that some accountant probably instituted in 1951 when rooms were $10 per night and someone bounced a $50 check. A good policy then, but today that hotel costs $230 per night, my friend is checked in for a week with a preauthorized credit card, and now Check 21 clears checks immediately. The unintended consequence? A disgusted customer who thinks the hotel does not trust him! My friend’s response was “Aieeeeega!”
Here’s an example closer to home: One of our local universities requires degree-seeking students to track down their adviser for registration signoff before they are allowed to register. The reason? Probably some student 40 years ago did not talk to an adviser and took courses that looked like fun, thereby going to college on the 12-year plan.
The unintended consequences? Students today are made to feel they can’t make decisions for themselves; their registration takes longer, and even longer if their adviser is AWOL. The students’ response is “Aieeeega!”
My 2020 resolution is to look at all of the policies and systems within my control, evaluate both the intended and the unintended consequences, and get rid of those which have either outlived their usefulness, or the price of unintended consequences is too high. The systems we put in place today will long outlive us in organizations if we don’t constantly look at them through our customers' perspective.
Take for example, the shampoo bottles found in hotels. The designer of that little bottle didn’t take into consideration that old guys like me wear glasses. Though I hate to admit it to the entire population of Fairbanks it is true that I don’t wear my glasses in the shower. The problem is that in no hotel in the entire Western Hemisphere can you read the word shampoo on those nasty little bottles in the shower without glasses on.
Just last week I “Scoped” my eyes. The natural response? “Dang, I’m getting old,” when what we should really say is: “Dang, I’d like to choke the neck of that shampoo bottle designer.”
There is a story going around the internet that the reason the space between rails on the Alaska Railroad is 4 feet 8 ½ inches is because the U.S. rail gauge is based on 1800s European rail, which was based on the ruts in old European highways, which was based upon the ruts created by ancient Roman chariots, which was based on the size of the Roman chariot horses' rear.
The space shuttle booster rockets travel by rail from Utah to Florida, thus limiting their size to that of the rail gauge. Would it be fair to say that the most modern transportation system in the world today — the space shuttle, is limited by a system put into place 2,000 years ago by an ancient horse’s #@!?
So, my new year’s resolution is to get rid of the “nasty little shampoo bottles” in my organization that may have made sense at one time but serve only to drive my customers nuts today. I challenge you in your organization to do the same.
I also challenge a local university to revisit its advising policy … In 1983 I did finally graduate on the 12-year-unintended-consequences-plan! “Aieeega!”
Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus at the UAF Community and Technical College. He can be reached at email@example.com. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.