Are Numbers more Important than People?

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February 14, 2017

Are numbers (results) more important than the interactions you have along the way to achieving them? It is a pretty interesting question, once you think about it.

So, here is a real-world example that really got me thinking about it. I was sitting on a plane waiting to depart for Chicago's O'Hare airport. As is typical traveling to O'Hare, the pilot came on the PA to announce that we had a 30-minute ground hold from air traffic control, but they would do their best to make up some time en route.

On this particular flight, I was lucky enough to get a last minute upgrade into first class, so I had a front row seat for the following conversation:

Gate Agent: "We have one more passenger that is in the airport…we hope to still get him on the plane before we close the door."

Pilot: "Well, we are in a delay, so it could be his lucky day."

Gate Agent: "We still need to close the door in two minutes - the supervisors just got on us again about our on-time departure numbers."

Pilot: "Well, we all know what happens when we anger supervisors!"

Two minutes went by, and the cabin doors closed. The cockpit door remained open, as we were still only about five minutes into our 30-minute delay. Another two minutes went by, and the pilot, flight attendants and I could see the late passenger arrive at the gate through the cockpit windshield.

Pilot: "Well, there he is…two minutes too late."

Flight Attendant: "This is the last flight out to Chicago tonight…he is either going to be late for his meeting or not getting home."

We then sat at the gate for about 15 more minutes before we pushed back to begin to taxi for the runway.

So, I had two thoughts after hearing this exchange. The obvious first one is the title of this article – when are numbers more important than people? What is the tipping point of the human element being less important than hitting a quota? That is a difficult question for most of us to answer, and one we probably do not consider enough.

Secondly, in this case, the ultimate decision was made by a supervisor that was not even present – from an edict given earlier, and without knowledge of this situation. All airline employees in this situation were following policy, not guidelines. Guidelines give our employees autonomy to make a decision in the moment…policies do not.

The take-a-way – I encourage you to think for a moment:

  • Are there scenarios in your business where the numbers are currently more important compared to the people involved? If so, is this correct?
  • Are there more factors that should be considered?
  • Is it this way merely because we have always done it this way, and we are scared to think differently?

Question two is this:

  • Are there instances in your organization where policy is in place, but guidelines would be better for your employees and customers?

Think about the answers to those two questions. I'd love to hear your answers, and thoughts on the impact of your answers to your business relationships and bottom line. Please share with me here, or at @daviddmurray on Twitter.

Related Tags:Customer Service, Processes