I was having a light-hearted disagreement with a colleague about the loyalty card programs of the lunch places across the street from Acumen – the cards where you get 10 punches / stamps and get a free lunch. Some of them, like Chelsea Thai, allow you to combine different cards, so if you don’t always have your card with you, you can still get a stamp and combine cards. Others, like Hale & Hearty Soup, have a strict policy: no combining of cards.
The disagreement was whether there’s a meaningful difference between the two.
I discovered the intricacies of the Hale & Hearty stamp card policy a few years back when I showed up with two soup cards, one with 6 stamps and one with 4. Those two cards represented a good deal of concerted soup-eating effort on my part. Proudly, at the front of the line, I presented my two cards only to be told that the policy was “No combining cards.”
No (free) soup for me.
To be clear, I could get a free soup when I presented ONE business-card-sized piece of card stock with 10 little ink stamps on it, but not two separate cards adding up to 10.
From that moment, I stopped collecting Hale & Hearty Soup stamps.
Now, one could easily (and convincingly) argue that it’s not too much to ask that I keep track of that one card. That’s probably true. But I wonder about the culture of an organization that enforces that kind of rule, one where employees cannot make a call to say “yes” to a customer who is showing up and vouching for their own loyalty to your store.
Dov Seidman, author of How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), conducted a survey of 5,000 managers and executives in the US, to understand their values and behaviors. From that survey, he grouped companies into three categories:
Companies in the first group, called “blind obedience,” rely on coercion, formal authority, policing, and top-down command-and-control leadership. The second group, “informed acquiescence” organizations, have clear-cut rules and policies, well-established procedures, and performance-based rewards and punishments — the standards of high-quality 20th-century management. The third group, organizations with “self-governance,” are the most farsighted organizations, best positioned to thrive in an interdependent world. People at all levels of the company are trusted to act on their own initiative and to collaboratively innovate; a shared purpose and common values guide employee and company behavior.
I’d pretty much forgotten about my Hale & Hearty frustrations until last month when, on my way to India, I had a short, groggy layover in London’s Heathrow airport. I found my way to a Pret a Manger, my new favorite London destination, and began searching in vain, amongst the throng of coffee-starved travelers, for oatmeal (“porridge”). I waved and gesticulated a few times to the cashier, asking her where to find it, and she kept on pointing me to the same spot. Then, finally, she stepped out from behind the register, looked for herself, and realized that they were fresh out of porridge.
Immediately upon returning to the counter, she not only apologized to me, she offered me a latte on the house! Her decision was so quick and made with so little hesitation that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was bending the rules or whether, even in such a big chain the front-line employee is given the freedom to delight a customer.
It turns out that this is how Pret works, that their philosophy is all about team and front-line employees and about delighting their customers. Which would be quaint if Pret were a mom n’ pop shop, but in fact it is majority-owned by a private equity firm, it has more than 350 stores, nearly $1 billion in revenues, and it’s growing like gangbusters.
Maybe, just maybe, the follow-all-the-rules-or-you’ll-get-fired approach to management is starting to show its colors as the un-enlightened, underperforming approach it seems to be. Because while there’s no doubt that most people would rather work somewhere where their job is to make other people happy, we’re starting to see more and more (and more) examples of how the by-the-numbers approaches are revealed for what they truly are: races to the bottom.