Process Automation Run Amok? A Traveler’s Tale

This is my first post in awhile, due to multiple business and personal factors, some of which will become evident as my tale unfolds. As a longtime HCM technologist, I’m generally a fan of automating processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness wherever possible. However, there are times when automation can go too far. I recently experienced this firsthand in the wonderful world of business travel, and I hope that my “tale of woe” has some lessons learned that can be applied to our world of HR Technology.

As a longtime Northwest / Delta user, current Platinum Medallion member, Million Miler, and native Minnesotan, I almost always fly out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP). However, due to my 13-year-old son Ryan’s AAU basketball tournament Mother’s Day weekend (I know, spousal points off for that one…;-) in the Des Moines area, I made a reservation to fly out of DSM  through MSP to LAX on Sunday, May 13 to make a Monday morning client meeting in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, my mother passed away (unexpectedly swiftly) due to pancreatic cancer on Friday, May 11, which required me to stay home to make funeral arrangements. In the midst of all the chaos of schedule and transportation changes, I thought it would be a relatively simple matter to modify my reservation to simply get on the MSP->LAX leg of my scheduled flight. I was sadly mistaken. Although the change fee would be waived due to the circumstances (with proper verification, of course), I was informed that I would have to in effect rebook the fare, at an additional cost of $733 (more than doubling the cost of the original ticket). I spent over three hours talking with various service representatives on the Delta Platinum Service and Customer Care lines, to no avail. Everyone said they were unable to do anything about the situation. In the end, the least costly option was for me to purchase an additional one-way flight from MSP->DSM for an additional $411.80. I had to leave my house at Noon, fly down to DSM, immediately get back on the same plane, fly back to MSP, and then wait for the MSP->LAX flight.

In addition to being out the cost of the extra flight, I spent four additional hours of travel time on Mother’s Day, which impacted not only me, but also my family in the aftermath of my mother’s death. Words can’t adequately express how frustrating, ridiculous and nonsensical this whole situation was to me. So, after some thought, I wrote a complaint letter to Delta, which included the following paragraph:

 I would like your perspective / rationale on how this situation was handled. It seems clear to me that your automated systems have run amok, as it appears that no one had the authority to override such an obviously stupid situation. If this was a case of unwillingness rather than inability on the part of your service staff, then I might feel even worse about your airline.

Let’s step out of the story for a moment, and draw some parallels to our industry and organizations by asking the following questions:

  • How do your employees and managers feel when they interact with your technology-enabled HCM processes? Is there any ability for various levels of authority to override workflows when the outcome is “just plain wrong?”
  • Do you have escalation levels clearly defined, so that an employee or manager can appeal an outcome and have the matter quickly discussed and resolved?
  • Are those in the “chain of command” empowered to do what is right for the “customer” (e.g., the employee or manager), or are they hamstrung by technology and/or policy – “I’m sorry, but the system won’t allow me to…”
  • Does everyone on your team have a clear idea of who their customers are, including goals, needs, and expectations?

So, how did my sad story end? Kudos to Delta – less than 15 hours after I submitted my compliant, I was contacted by an Executive Customer Care Rep (read – Tier 3 support). Along with a profuse apology, I was refunded most of the cost of the extra leg that I purchased, and received a travel voucher towards a future flight. This at least somewhat compensated me for what I had experienced, although it clearly would have been a much better solution to have avoided all the extra travel in the first place.

In my view there are some clear lessons from this tale that can be applied to our daily lives in HCM technology:

  • System support of HCM processes need to be flexible and include the ability to override “normal” outcomes in order to account for special situations. Override ability should not be indiscriminate (that would result in chaos), but only be given to certain critical roles.
  • Clearly define escalation levels for all major processes, so that special circumstances can be evaluated and resolved in the shortest time possible.
  • When an outcome occurs that is clearly wrong and stupid, own it – respond quickly and do what is necessary to make things right. Then, evaluate where you might make process and system changes to reduce the likelihood of reoccurrence.

As always, I look forward to feedback and additional insights from you – comments are always welcome!

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