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The Six Stupid methodology

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I’ve discovered a new process design methodology. I call it “Six Stupid.”

Everyone knows that a group of people is dumber than its least intelligent member. Six Stupid is based on this insight. Unlike the better-known Six Sigma, Six Stupid requires the collaboration of at least six idiots, to design process flows that defy reason and preclude exceptions. To illustrate:

My wife and I ordered furniture on-line from a prominent multi-channel retailer. A few hours later we stumbled upon a better alternative at a much more attractive price.

The first retailer’s website refused to cancel our order so I called customer service, where a polite representative told me she couldn’t cancel it either. The reason? It had already been sent to the warehouse for processing.

When I suggested she contact the warehouse, she explained that it had no telephone number to call. Really. The only solution was for them to ship the merchandise and for me to refuse the shipment. When it arrived back at the warehouse, they’d restock it and credit my account.

Which is how it happened.

This wasn’t a case of customer elimination management. Quite the opposite — customer service took care of me just fine. No, this was an example of Six Stupid. Even if the merchandise had been picked and was waiting on the shipping dock, anyone with a gram of sense could have figured out that logging the shipment as departed, then rolling it directly to Restocking would have saved paying UPS twice to ship it back and forth. But policy, and the lack of telephone service, made sure everyone Followed the Process.

Then came the blizzard, and with it a Six Stupid airline experience.

It happened like this: I’d bought round trip tickets to New York City. A week after that trip I’d booked a long weekend in Florida.

Then plans changed and I had to stay in New York an extra week, which meant I’d fly to Minnesota Thursday evening so I could get on a flight to Florida the next morning. The fare rules, you see, didn’t allow converting two round-trip tickets into one triangle fare.

Then, the day before I was to return to Minnesota, the weather service forecast snow there, and lots of it. The airline cancelled my flight in anticipation and rebooked me for the following morning, to arrive a half-hour after my flight to Florida was scheduled to depart.

I called customer service, explained the situation, and suggested that under the circumstances, routing me directly to Florida clearly made more sense for both of us.

But the fare rules still wouldn’t allow it. The best they could do was to rebook my Florida flight to later in the day. I asked the guy on the phone to check with his supervisor, which he did. No-go: She wouldn’t or couldn’t override the system. “I guess I’d better speak to your supervisor, then,” I suggested. He connected me.

“I know you have complex fare rules that mere mortals like me can’t fully comprehend …” I began. Those were the last words I would successfully utter for at least five minutes.

The customer service supervisor scolded me … that’s the only accurate description … for (1) being disrespectful to the airline; (2) trying to game their fares to get a cheaper flight to Florida; and (3) now trying to cheat to get the best of both worlds.

I confess that by the end of the call I became somewhat testy. Anyway, the next morning I spoke to a different supervisor, described my previous attempt at resolution, and asked if the airline really wanted to fly me in and out of a blizzard zone when a simple and easy alternative was staring both of us in the face.

She told me the first supervisor had placed a red flag in my records. It said that under no circumstances should anyone help me out. She did anyway, routing me directly to Florida.

It was the opposite of the first Six Stupid situation: The airline’s process did allow for exceptions. But I caught someone in a very bad mood who insisted on Following the Process anyway.

The point of this week’s tiresome missive? There are two.

The first: Don’t use the Six Stupid methodology to design whatever processes you’re trying to implement. Make sure every process has a process bypass process to handle situations that just don’t fit.

And second, make this rule inviolable:

Turning a new process on does not justify employees turning their brains off.

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