Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing learned firsthand that if an outstanding traffic ticket was not recorded in the computer system, payment could not be accepted. His wife (the guilty party) might face tremendous late penalties because the database at the LA Superior Court—and their employees—could not handle a tiny exception.
The woman [at the ticket office] told my wife what the fine is (about $135), but told her that she could not accept payment for the fine, because the ticket is not in the database. My wife is not allowed to attend driving school, either, because the ticket isn’t in the database.
The woman instructed my wife to call the court every week, to find out if the ticket had been entered into the computer yet. Once it shows up, she is supposed to drive to the ticket office the very next day to take care of it. And once the ticket has been entered, she is going to be hit with a penalty and possibly a warrrant for her arrest, because once the information goes into the computer it’ll see that she hasn’t paid the fine yet, and it will be flagged as delinquent. My wife will then have to explain the situation to another helpful city employee.
Although most of the time, a system operates within a predictable range, unusual circumstances do occur. The LAPD officer who wrote the ticket forgot to scribble down the date, which brought the churning wheels of bureacracy to a frightening standstill. Being trapped between two impossible requirements (“you can’t pay if you are not in the system” and “you’ll be penalized if you don’ t pay soon”) feels like the plight of character in a Franz Kafka novel.
Organizations that provide important services to clients need to ensure that processes handle both the main path and various alternate paths. When exceptions occur, employees must be empowered to assist customers and managers should refine existing systems accordingly.
Of course, most organizations (and especially city governments) are not places where people are thought of as being able to adapt to a particular situation. The challenge in creating an effective process is handling the typical situation through a standard procedure, but also making sure that individuals have the power to issue an exception.
What about your own company? Can you bend the rules in special circumstances? Or do you punish customers when the details aren’t quite right?