Just back from the annual holiday with the family. One of the worst things about the work we do is that there is no switch to “Turn it off”. Whilst on holiday we had the cliched problem with sun loungers and towels and it bought focus to the problems we face at work in Product Management.
The situation was typical. So typical that it was a cliche in management terms as well as sun loungers. Simply put, there were not enough sun loungers, towels were deployed, the rules were not clear and people got upset. Management had policies in place that made matters worse. Even worse, staff were not empowered to resolve problems for customers. It was a classic case for deployment of the theory of constraints.
Step 1: Find the constraint. That was easy. There were more people who wanted a sun lounger than there were sun loungers to go around.
Step 2: Prioritise the constraint. This is where management policy failed the “fairness rule” and customers got upset. This lead to conflict between customers, and conflict between customers and staff.
No need for step 3 and step 4.
So the problem for the hotel management was that there were not enough sun loungers. We have all been in that kind of situation. The problem for the customer was that the system was not fair and even monkeys get upset when treated unfairly. ( <– Watch this 2 minute video, its a treat. )
So why wasn’t the process fair?
- The customers knew that only two thirds of the sun loungers were actually being made available. One third were being held back for unspecified reasons. (Two reasons suggested were that “The manager thought it made the pool look untidy.” and “If too many were put out, the decking around the pool might collapse.” – Neither of which are good from the customer’s perspective. Either the manager’s sense of esthetics was more important than his customer’s comfort, or the pool area was dangerous.)
- Some sun loungers were deployed in the darkened indoor spa pool where there were already warmed stone beds to use instead. As a result the sun loungers were not used but they could not be moved to the pool side (unless you applied enough pressure on the pool staff).
- The spa reserved some sun-beds for people from outside the hotel who had signed up for a day spa experience. This meant that people staying in the hotel would be without a sun lounger all day because a day spa guest might want to sit by the pool for an hour.
- The rules for reserving sun loungers with towels were not clear or explicit. On day one I discovered that a French family had reserved a number of sun loungers with towels. On day two, I reserved a number of sun loungers before breakfast only to discover they had been removed by a German couple when we came to use them. When I asked one of the pool staff for assistance he randomly removed some towels from sun loungers for us and when the Dutch owners of the towels turned up, we faced the same awkward conflict situation with the them as the German couple had faced with us.
- The hotel staff did not take ownership. When we complained to the pool staff, they pointed us to reception. When we complained to reception, they pointed to the pool staff. It was only when we demanded that the General Manager come to the pool that the spa management rudely and begrudgingly found some extra sun loungers. (Note – We do not blame the spa management, anyone who has managed a constraint before knows that you need to lose empathy or otherwise you cannot function). It should be noted that the staff were wonderful but had no space to move within the rules specified by a general manager who clearly did not understand empowerment.
- An extension of the lack of ownership was that pool staff were only available to put out extra sun loungers at 11:00am. (The hotel wisely took the light weight sun loungers in overnight in case they blew about in strong wind.) This meant that there were even fewer sun loungers during the most popular time of 9:00am to 11:00am. Check out this wonderful picture of a person with a medical walking stick having to sit on the floor next to another person using the step as a cushion because the manager thinks the pool looks better with fewer sun loungers. Other customers choosto lie on a towel on the floor. The Emergent Behaviour of customers can be quite vexing for managers who would rather they shayed in their room out of sight.
- Reception staff were helpful and raised the issue with management. Their solution, my family would get special treatment and have a number of sun loungers reserved for us… more unfairness.
So what can management do? We can apply the same kind of thinking for most constrained resources:
- Transparency – Make sure customers have transparency on what resources are available. No hidden resources. Hidden resources are unfair and destroy trust in the integrity of the system which leads to people gaming the system. After all, Unfairness leads to unhappy Monkeys!
- Deploy all resources – Get all your sun loungers out at 8:00 am rather than force people to wait until 11:00 am and create an even more severe and artificial constraint. In other words, its not fun being a constraint. (Step 3 applies here. People from other departments could be deployed to assist. Else step 4, more staff.)
- Understand customer need – Customers need sun-loungers in the sunshine by the pool, and not in darkened rooms. In other words, respond to customer needs rather than management needs. If management needs trump customer needs, make it a feature of your hotel and notify your customers at their time of booking. A simple “Basil Fawlty’s opinion matters, not yours!” on your web-site should suffice.
- Reserved Resources – Where resources need to be reserved, make it clear and make sure they are only reserved when needed. Attaching a tag to a sun lounger saying “This sun lounger is reserved for day guests, please vacate it if a day guest needs it”. Note – If the London Underground can do this, I’m sure an exclusive hotel can.
- Transparent Policies – A notice warning guests that they cannot reserve sun loungers using towels.
- Police the Policy – Staff need to consistently enforce policies. It should not be left up to customers to confront other customers. After all, customers are meant to be on holiday and are not really expecting conflict with other customers and staff because the hotel is creating an artificial constraint and failing to implement proper policies to manage the artificial constraint they have created.
In summary, constraints can cause conflicts so don’t create them artificially, and make sure any policy for managing the constraints is transparent and fair. The similarities with constraints in product development are striking.
So now I’m off to read some books and find out if there is a way to switch off these mind viruses when I want to get away from it all.