When “Corporate” Gets in the Way

man with ball and chain

One of the things that pains me the most is when I hear people saying they can’t make improvement because “Corporate” won’t allow it or a policy stands in the way of common sense.

I recently witnessed this at my local Starbucks. I watched as a worker who was grinding a pound of coffee beans for me struggled to see into the grinder to see if all the beans had been ground. She was particularly short and the coffee grinder was positioned at the back of a wide shelf. She learned forward unsteadily on her tiptoes and used a long spoon to try to push the beans that may be remaining on the sides into the center of the grinder.

Ergonomically, nothing she did was particularly safe. Yet she was trying to do the right thing: deliver to me a full pound of ground beans. (Which is yet another example of something I regularly say: “Most people will do whatever it takes to get the job done. So be careful what behaviors you encourage due to poor processes or workplace design.”)

After watching her for a few minutes, I mentioned feeling bad for her and asked if she had talked with her manager about how awkward it was for her to be successful performing a simple task. We got talking a bit and, after she explained their cramped space problem, I suggested a simple solution of putting a mirror on the underside of the upper cabinet that was above the grinder (yes, I recognize that I was not in coaching mode). She lit up and then her smile faded and she said, “We’d never be allowed to do that. Corporate won’t let us.”

About a week later, I was fortunate to have two Starbucks managers in a workshop I delivered. When I shared the story with them during a break, they acknowledged that in its zest for standardization, “Corporate” may have gone overboard and created too many restrictions—or perceived restrictions—for stores to adjust to local conditions. They said they’d take the story back to Corporate and find a way to strike a better balance between standardization and common sense kaizen.

Keep in mind that this isn’t just a Starbucks problem. This is an every-organization problem. Starbucks happens to be one of the best-run organizations I encounter as a consumer. So if Starbucks can fall prey to this pesky disease, so can any organization. And they do.

While standardization is absolutely necessary, concurrent flexibility and continuous improvement needs to be built into the system and embedded into the culture to enable the business to adapt on a dime. Employees need to be authorized to make minor improvements that make work easier and safer. Without giving employees freedom with boundaries, we create systems of disrespect that disengage and, in the worse cases, strip people of their dignity.

Workplaces are meant to be vibrant venues to meet customer needs, make a profit, and allow workers to realize their full potential as human beings. It’s really that simple. Why do we make it so difficult?

by Mark Graban reply

Great story, Karen. I love the mirror idea if they can’t make sure the work is at the right height for people.

I wonder if “corporate won’t allow us” is real or just a perception. I know in big organizations, it’s easy for a local manager to say “senior leadership won’t let us…” when that’s really just a way of saying “I don’t want to” while blaming it somebody else.

A variation of “corporate won’t allow us” is to blame a law (like HIPAA in healthcare) or some regulatory board (“the Joint Commission wouldn’t like that”).

In my experience, at least half of those claims turn out to be inaccurate (often due to a misunderstanding, not somebody being intentionally deceitful).

OK, I’m getting off topic, but I agree with the main point that organizations need to let individuals be more creative in order to better meet customer needs and organizational objectives.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Mark – Yes, I experience the same with people saying they aren’t “allowed” to do something, which is often not the case and has many root causes. In this case, however, there really are restrictions that need to be looked at again related to standardization and the physical look to a store.


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