– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

Total system failure

Last week, I was the victim of a total system failure. I was surrounded by a perfectly well designed system that was set up to protect me from any harm and – in case something bad should happen anyway – to lessen the negative effects.

If only one element of that system – including myself – had performed as it was intended to do, nothing bad would have happened. However, sometimes the unthinkable becomes reality. I had to endure the consequences.

Here is what happened:

  • It all started with a small carelessness of mine: I left the house early in the morning without recharging my mobile phone’s battery. Normally, this is no problem, since I am not a heavy user.
  • In the morning, I had to solve a minor problem with the amazon.com service hotline. They were very friendly and solved the issue to my satisfaction. However, the service guy at the other end probably was new and unexperienced. I had to explain my problem three times until he got it and then he had to ask a colleague for the solution. That didn’t trouble me at all since he was friendly and finally he solved my problem. Unfortunately, my mobile phone’s battery was almost depleted after that call.
  • In the afternoon I picked up my kids by car. First I got my daughter from school. On our way to my son’s kindergarten, I had to avoid a collision with a cyclist who didn’t obey traffic rules. My left front wheel bumped against the sharp edge of the curbstone. Luckily, nothing serious had happened. At least I thought so.
  • On my way to the kindergarten I noticed a noise from my cars left side: pfffft …. pfffft … Reaching the kindergartens parking lot, I got out and could just watch the remaining air leak from my tire. Then it was flat.
  • My car did not come with a spare tire, just with a repair kit, which would not work on a leak of that size.
  • My first thought was to call my car repair shop. They are always helpful and I knew that there was a tow service with the same name as theirs right next to them. I hoped that they would just send their tow service and pick me up.
  • The woman at the repair shop was – again – friendly, but she tends to talk too much. Long-windedly she explained to me that I would have to call Ford assistance service and that I would find their number in my service booklet which I would find in my glove compartment. – No, I don’t have my service booklet in my glove compartment – But you should always have it there because …. – Well, it is not there. Could you just give me their number!
  • When I finally had the number I started to worry about my almost depleted battery.
  • At the Ford assistance hotline I met a service agent who was slow on the uptake. I had to explain several times where the car stands and where I wanted it to be. – Yes, the car is in Elsa-Brandstroem-Allee and the car should go to auto house Hildenbrand. – Yes, this is both in Ruesselsheim. – OK, the tow truck should be there in about an hour.
  • There was no tow truck there one hour later.
  • There was no tow truck there two hours later. A helpful mother of one of my kids’ kindergarten-friends took my kids with her so that they would not have to wait there any longer. I decided to give my husband a call so that he knew where we are. Unfortunately, the phone finally went silent after my first two sentences.
  • There was no tow truck there after three hours. I decided that I wanted to get home before dawn, locked my car and walked home. I arrived at my house after a three miles walk which took me about 45 minutes.

I went to my car repair shop the next morning. After a few phone calls, we found out what happened (or better: did not happen) the day before:

  • The service agent at the Ford assistance hotline had mixed up the places where the car was and where it should go to. Hence, the tow service got a message that they should pick up a car with a flat tire at Ford auto house Hildenbrand.
  • The guy there went out of his building, had a look around the corner (remember: both companies named Hildenbrad, located side by side), did not see a broken car there, and considered his assignment fulfilled – or unfulfillable. That was all.
  • They reason why these two companies with the same name did not speak directly to each other was that they actually belonged to the same family, but to family branches with a conflict.

As you can see, every single element in the total system had failed. Had only one element performed as it was supposed to do, it could have compensated all other failures, me being part of the problem:

  • Had I recharged my phone’s battery the night before, I would have had plenty of time to call for help and to ask why the tow track was not coming. Somebody would have corrected the mistake and sent me a tow truck.
  • Had at least one of the three service agents (amazon.com, my car repair shop, Ford assistance) ben quick, it would have saved me valuable battery power to make additional calls – see above
  • Had not some unknown cost cutting expert decided to deliver cars with only a repair kit instead of an expensive spare tire, I could have changed the tire by myself. No need for a tow truck at all.
  • Had the car repair shop not referred me to Ford assistance, they could have sent me somebody with a spare tire and tools to change tires.
  • Had the tow truck driver questioned the unusual order to pick up a broken car at a car repair shop to bring it somewhere else, the mistake would have been discovered.
  • Had the same tow truck driver walked into the auto house / repair shop and asked about a broken car, they could have directed him to me

What can we learn from this experience of total system failure?

  • Never blindly rely on emergency systems. There can always something go wrong that nobody has thought of and nobody has prepared a routine for.
  • Test every emergency system for the most unlikely chain of events.
  • Encourage all customer service staff to think twice about unusual service requests. They should better double-check if this really is what the customer wants.
  • A customer calling for support may still need that support, even if he is not at the expected place.
  • It is a good idea to double check if the customer actually got the requested service after a reasonable time.
  • Last but not least – never leave the house without a fully charged mobile phone battery!
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