- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

The orphan trolley problem

At a recent conference, one of the speakers explained his recent experience in a building materials, large shop where he was trying to buy tiles for his bathroom. As it is common in those large DYI shops, you do most of the thinking, shopping and carrying. Very often there are  few employees around, most of them at the check out.

Apparently they were no visible trolleys around that day, presumably all in use or left behind by customers in aisles and corners. He asked for trolleys to some staff. They all said they did not know, or it was not their role to find them. Nobody was ‘in charge of the trolleys’, so nobody was able to help. Evidently there was a tiles department and a bathroom department and a furniture department and a screwdrivers department, but not a trolley department. Trolleys were orphans.

The speaker ranted about this being an expression of terrible management. His topic was about the vagaries of management techniques and how management treated people like children. The trolley episode was just an exasperation that confirmed his preconceived ideas of how management is rotten.

Now imagine that, next door to the frustrated speaker’s shop, there is another big store, also with trolleys, and that staff there are helpful and find one for you if you need one. Does that make it  a‘good management store’?

‘The orphan trolley problem’ is not a management problem, it is a behavioural problem. Of course it’s easy to attribute all to management, going backwards in the causality. But helping, stopping-and-help, going a little extra mile, and offering to assist, is behavioural. It is culture.

The two shops may be similar in business models, size and … the need for trolleys. One has a culture of ‘not my department’ and the other one of ‘helping people’. I doubt the latter had a training programme on ‘finding trolleys for customers who don’t have one’. But even if it did, it would be an example or caring for a culture, whether they used the term or not.

Maybe management in the store that irritated the speaker so much, had also had a ‘training  on helping’, or a standard customer service instruction, but it had the wrong behaviours, the wrong culture. Perhaps not even maliciously staff did not see ‘the trolleys’ as their problem. Perhaps they thought somebody else was in charge. Accountability was ‘not taken’.

Most weak links in organizations are behavioural.

Culture is the difference between mediocrity and excellence, between being oblivious and caring, between repeated business and avoidance of the place at all cost.


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