Chapter 8: Chow Fun – Catalogs, Services and Portfolios


All the way to the restaurant, Ian kept up a steady patter, alternating between complaints and curses about the situation, broken only by fist shaking and yelling at other drivers. It was a good thing I was driving, and we were getting away from the office, because by the time we reached the restaurant, Ian was ready to explode.

‘Why is this my flipping problem? I’m not accountable for building somebody’s PC, or installing their phone. I just keep track of the stuff we buy. Just because the company is too cheap to put someone in charge of this, why does it become my problem? Why is it whenever I try to do the right thing, someone starts to beat on me? I know I’m gonna get fired over it. And it’ll be for something that I’m not even accountable for. How’s that for irony of Shakespearean proportions’?

‘Well if not you, then who’? I asked. That was a mistake. I thought he was going to either hit me, or punch out a window.

‘No, it’s why me. Nobody owns IT’s provisioning services for new employees. Just like nobody owns any of IT’s services. I guess that way, when it gets messed up, there is no one who gets dinged for it.’

It hadn’t been that long since orientation. I still remembered the module on what made our IT organization better than most. ‘But that’s because our organizational model says that if you have most of the content for a user request, then you take the lead. You step up and do it because it’s for the good of all. That’s what makes our IT better than most others. We all are accountable to the client and each other.’

‘I see you still remember your orientation class. Let me clue you in on the reality. People don’t step up, because they are already overcommitted in their current assignments. Since no one owns overall responsibility, any time they invest in being accountable for these requests, just increases their risk of failure elsewhere. When everyone is accountable, no one is accountable.’

I stopped adding fuel to Ian’s rants. He was beyond rationality, and into the pain of his situation. I let him rage and vent while we traveled into a run-down section of the city, and pulled into the pot-holed parking lot of a small and shabby strip mall. Many of the storefronts were vacant; their windows plastered with ‘For Rent’ signs. Our destination was a Chinese restaurant. It was bracketed by a liquor store on one side, and an adult novelties shop on the other. In front of the restaurant, the lot was crowded with parked cars. The windows of the restaurant were steamed opaque.

As we got out, Ian pointed to a sign in the window, and asked, ‘What the heck is Yum Cha? Is that what we’re having? I don’t want any of that phony fast food stuff masquerading as real Chinese food, like they eat in China. Just get me an order of General Tso’s chicken and some Crab Rangoon. Give me the authentic stuff and I’m good.’

I shook my head. ‘Yum Cha is a style, not a dish. This is a Dim Sum teahouse. You’ll get to sample a lot of dishes, including my favorite, Dry-Fried Beef Chow Fun; beef, noodles, onions and sprouts. It’s a test for the skill of any chef that offers it. There are a lot more ways to do it wrong than right, and it takes a true master to consistently get it right. Kind of like what you do at work.’

‘I doubt that. It sounds so simple even a child could do it. I don’t see how that could be much of a test. Not like those idiots back in the office.’

As I guided Ian into the restaurant, I said, ‘Hey, don’t let them beat you by remote control. You’re out of the office and on Ian time now. Let it go for a few minutes. Let’s just have lunch and enjoy the experience.’ There was no way I would get anything intelligible out of him until he relaxed a little.

We worked our way over to a table, and were swamped by the sensory overload. The smell of so many different foods, mixed with the hustle of the servers, the clanging of dirty dishes being cleared from tables, and the constant buzz of conversations in so many languages, brought Ian’s rant to a halt. At least this new experience would force him to think about something else for an hour, besides how much he hated his job.

But I kept thinking about what Ian had said; about how it was so simple a child could do it; simple, yet difficult. Perhaps it was the simple things, the things most visible to the business; the things they viewed as simple, no matter whether they were or not, that were the hardest of all things to consistently do right.

When we finished lunch, our table was littered with over a dozen small empty plates and bowls. I started stacking them up for fun, and they seemed to come in four basic sizes. I signaled one of the assistant managers, who came to the table and totaled up our bill. He counted the number of dishes by size with his pen, and then quickly wrote the total on the bill. Ian grabbed the bill from his hand.

‘That’s amazing. How do you remember the price of all those dishes, and then add them up so fast? I never even saw a menu. If you’re that good with memorization and figures, you shouldn’t be stuck here in this restaurant. We could use you at work.’

He smiled, and in heavily accented English, said, ‘That is a very generous offer, Sir. But you overestimate me. Food is priced by size of the dish, we adjust the contents to provide a consistent and easy to understand price for our customers. We make it so easy, even a child could calculate the bill. Customers are the most important people in our lives. Without them, we would have nothing. And as for your very kind offer to work with you, I am afraid I must decline. My father, the owner, would not approve, and I suspect it would not match my disposition. But thank you, and I hope you have a very nice day.’

I plucked the bill from Ian’s hand and said, ‘I got it. Meet you outside.’

Ian was a different man on the way back to work. He had calmed down a lot. I ascribed it to the excellent Beef Chow Fun, but the beer he had with it probably didn’t hurt. No matter which, unwinding is better than stroking out.

When I dropped Ian back at the office, he pointed me straight at the service desk, for the solution to my problem. I’d always called it the help desk, but Ian had corrected me, since not only did they help you out when you had a problem, but they also were the one-stop entry point for whatever you needed to do your job. It bothered me that it was so hard to find a solution to such a simple activity that we did all the time, and that no one seemed to be responsible for it.

Ian even gave me the personal cell phone number of Manuel, the senior manager in charge of their day-to-day operations. The service desk team was housed in its own building, along with the telemarketing team. I’d called Manuel from my car phone, and followed Lee’s advice, by letting him believe that I was looking for him under Jacob and Jason’s direction, in order to get an immediate meeting with him.

I drove past the building without realizing it the first time. The two-story nondescript building looked like thousands of other modern office-park boxes, built to maximize internal space and minimize cost. Externally, there was no signage, or any other indicators it was a part of the company. The only clue it was occupied, was the full parking lot. Even though I had my ID pass, I still had to sign in as a guest at reception, and wait for an escort. It seemed they wouldn’t let just anyone, even employees from other parts of the company, near the service desk or telemarketing team. It made some sense in that their work was so very different from the other people at headquarters. They were a production shop, just like they wouldn’t let just anyone onto a manufacturing floor. It was their job to process calls, and anything that distracted them from that was bad. Their mission was to serve the customer. At least that’s what I remembered from my new employee orientation.

A few minutes after I’d signed in with security and added the guest badge to my jacket, the locked door behind the security guard opened, and a smiling man, with an outstretched hand, walked through.

‘You must be Chris. I’m Manuel. My team runs the service desk.’

After a short, limp, handshake, he turned and headed back through the door. ‘Follow me.’

We walked quickly along the edge of an enormous cube farm. Modern building techniques had allowed construction of the space, with no internal pillars blocking the view. The expanse was crammed with small cubes, barely big enough for a desk, chair and cabinet. Most were occupied by people wearing headsets and all talking at once. These were low-wall cubes, without even a pretense of privacy. Walls were just four feet high, slightly concealing the sitting occupants from their neighbors. On the far wall was an enormous monitor visible from every cube. It gave real-time updates in charts, the number of calls in queue, abandoned call rates, average call time, and a number of other real-time key performance indicators for the day, the week, and the month. Other monitors provided muted weather and news events in closed caption streams, crawling along the bottom of the images.

The din from the multitude of simultaneous conversations was stifling. I was grateful for the quiet when we stepped inside Manuel’s heavily soundproofed office, and he closed the door. One wall of Manuel’s office was glass, giving him an unrestricted view of the nodding heads and flashing screens. Behind his desk was a console with headset, that allowed him to listen in on any conversation being conducted by his team.

Opposite his desk, a large monitor hung on the wall, giving real-time updates in charts, numbers of the number of calls in queue, abandoned call rates, average call time, and a number of other key performance indicators for the day, the week and the month. It was identical to the ones installed around the walls of the cube farm, where only technicians could see them.

‘This is but one site of our service desk organization,’ said Manuel proudly, as he gestured through the glass window of his office, over the sea of low-walled cubicles. ‘We are a global company, and our service desk functionality follows the sun. No matter where you are, when you reach out, we will be there for you.’

‘So there are no multiple shifts at this site? This space is quiet and dark for two-thirds of every day’? I asked. ‘Doesn’t that waste a large segment of this location’s capability’?

‘Obviously, you don’t understand the reason a service desk must follow the sun,’ he shot back. ‘I played a key role in the development and transition from our old centralized model, to this new, more responsive, model. After all, we are here to serve the users, and must arrange ourselves to accommodate them, not make our life easier. Trust me; this is the best configuration for the corporation and its customers. Many smart people were involved in this decision and I am sure it is correct.’

Manuel gestured to a chair in front of his desk, and only when I was seated, did he sit down behind his desk. After shifting some papers between piles on his desk and closing a few folders, he said, ‘You know, Chris, we’re the primary mode of contact for our customers and employees. We work very closely with our partners on the marketing and sales teams, but did you know, customers spend more time with my team than they do with anyone else? We don’t get many disruptions here and rarely allow visitors, although I am always eager to hear from my leadership partners in the business. What can I do for Jacob and Jason’?

Lee had been right about that one. Just hinting at Jacob’s and Jason’s involvement, without even saying they were involved, was enough to get the VIP treatment; nothing like a warm welcome to make you feel at home. ‘Are you aware of the crisis we have in getting new employees properly equipped in the field? It seems that IT is incapable of gearing-up people to the point they can do their job with the consistency and quality the business expects.’

Manuel entered some data on his computer and then gave me a look of confusion. ‘While I recognize you are here representing business interests.’ He pointed at his computer screen. ‘That’s an interesting comment to hear from an IT person. According to my information, you are officially part of the IT organization. It is rare … perhaps one might even say refreshingly rare, to hear someone criticize the performance of their own organization.’

‘Why do you say that’?

‘For starters, most of the people and tasks involved in enabling new employees are in IT. It is not often I hear a function criticize itself. But more importantly, we are here to serve everyone in the company. We don’t point fingers because something isn’t perfect. We just try to help people get what they need, using the systems that are in place at the time. We work with the resources the company is able to provide for us, because those resources have been allocated in a way best suited to the advancement of the company as a whole.’

And that’s why Lee would call you all a bunch of losers, I thought. You took what was given to you and never pushed back.

‘One of the keys to success is to have a single point of contact for users,’ he said. ‘It is imperative that everyone reach out to a single point. We need to be able to gather data on who is calling, and about what, so we can continually improve the services we deliver to our users. That’s our job. We are the single point of contact for all services in the company. That’s why they call us the service desk,’ said Manuel in a decidedly condescending tone, as if that should be obvious to the simplest of minds.

‘Of course you are,’ I said. ‘But I have seen what Ian is going through with asset management. Users have the option of using the service desk to request services, but they also have the option of multiple other ways, too, and they seem to use all of them to get what they want.’

‘That’s incorrect,’ said Manuel. ‘All, and I repeat, all service requests are required to go through the service desk. It is part of our charter. Other requests are invalid and ignored. While equipping new users is not officially a service. It is actually a task that draws on several services; we don’t correct our users who may use the words incorrectly.’

Now I was confused. I’d been told that provisioning new users was a service IT performed, not a bunch of services bundled into a task. That didn’t even make any sense. That is not what I was told. I filed that away to investigate later because it seemed unimportant, just a semantics question that Lee would be upset if I spent any time on. But he would really like the idea of taking the order from the user and getting on with it. That was real customer-focused behavior.

Manuel turned and pointed to a poster on the wall that said, ‘The service desk is committed to building a high-performing, customer-focused team, dedicated to driving business success, user satisfaction and employee professional growth, through the creation and operation of a one-stop location for the fulfillment of requests, issue resolution, question response, and communication for all user needs, in a way that is ecologically green, and provides sustained first contact resolution and maximum efficiency of the resources the corporation provides in a continuous improvement mode.’

Manuel turned back and said, ‘Corporate leadership has reviewed and approved that charter for the service desk. I know. I was there when they gave the go-ahead. There are no other ways to request new employee provisioning, other than the service desk. We don’t perform the work ourselves, but we do assign it. And we assign tasks correctly to each of the relevant services. I have metrics to prove it. Over 99% of properly configured tasks submitted during specified working hours, through correct channels, are assigned and accepted. If Ian is handling requests through some back channels, then he is violating corporate guidelines, and should re-read the appropriate policy and process documentation.’

‘But what about situations where the service desk can’t address it, or doesn’t work fast enough, or the request is incomplete or incomprehensible’?

‘I wouldn’t worry. Other members of the corporate team have been instructed to refuse to process any user requests unless they follow the proper procedure, and submit them appropriately to my team for routing. You shouldn’t have any problems. Anything we receive from other IT teams that does not conform to our standards represents a breakdown in their behavior. The service desk remains properly aligned with corporate process and procedure.’

‘What if they don’t know the proper process? Isn’t that kind of anti-user’?

‘You’ve got it backwards, Chris. Users need to understand that we can serve them most efficiently if they simply follow the process and procedures. If they don’t do that, because they think they’re special, then they just have to understand these rules are there for their own good. If they do it right the first time, they will have it sooner.’

‘So you mean Ian is creating his own problem by not rejecting user requests unless they come from your team’?

‘That’s right. He’s only hurting himself,’ said Manuel. ‘My team solves most issues on first contact. If Ian would only follow the procedures I’ve lain down, he would notice a drop in his volume of work, and ultimately a happier and more productive user base.’

That was a relief to hear and I was sure Ian would be pleased to know there was a way to reduce his workload, too.

I nodded in agreement. ‘I think we can both agree that for something so essential to the business, and so simple, we need to perform flawlessly. That’s where I’d like to help.’

Manuel looked askance at me. ‘I’m not sure what you mean. Our KPIs are exactly aligned with our commitments. We are delivering as required. Isn’t this a conversation you should be having with the rest of the people involved, instead of the service desk; perhaps with your associate, Ian’?

I shook my head. ‘Manuel, it’s not about any defects or failings by your team. We need to ensure the implementation of the provisioning services is not only on target, but is optimized to get the maximum business benefit. So while that may not mean you’re doing something wrong, it may mean that given how other groups interface with you, there may be opportunities for you to help them. And I know that given the service desk’s commitment to our collective success, you will want to do what you can to help other teams that aren’t so proficient and well managed.’

I smiled on the inside. If only Lee could have heard that. It was exactly the kind of pandering ego stroking he seemed to use so successfully to get what he wanted.

‘A noble sentiment,’ said Manuel. ‘However, any true leader of a function would no more welcome my critiquing their methods of operating any more than I would. It is not our business model. If each of us makes our area the best in class, then the company as a whole becomes best in class. It is so simple and obvious even a child could understand it.’

That sounded like what Ian had been complaining about; that no one had end to end accountability for anything … kind of like an orchestra without a conductor. I was about to say something when I remembered what Lee had said about how one of the reasons people fail when convincing others what to do, is that they keep selling after they get agreement. One of the hardest things in sales is knowing when to stop selling and get to inking the deal.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Can you show me how things work; maybe let me sit in on a call or two? I’d really like to get a sense for how it feels on the front line and include that in my report. If there are any barriers your representatives are encountering in getting employees provisioned promptly, I may be able to get senior leadership to remove them for you.’

‘I like the sound of that,’ said Manuel. ‘Just extend me the courtesy of sharing any findings with me before you give them to management. I don’t want any inaccurate information to cause undue concern among our leaders. I can help you ensure all of your salient points are correct and properly aligned.’

This guy was slicker than Lee when it came to obscuring the facts. I smiled and said, ‘Would you? That would be an enormous help.’

‘Of course.’ Manuel checked his tablet and said, ‘Kourosh is working today. He is an experienced and trained representative. He will be able to handle the contacts and explain them at the same time.’ Manuel gestured to me as he reached for the door. ‘Follow me, please.’

Tips that would have helped Chris

Things that appear simple are often the hardest ones to get right when managing a process. Top professionals make it look effortless; until you understand the amount of hours they’ve spent making it look like that. Great concepts and solutions usually seem quite simple when explained by a person who is a master at them. When assessing or designing processes, always look extra thoroughly at things that appear simple, especially if people are involved. There is a good chance it is much more complicated under the surface.

Metrics can make any organization look good or bad, independent of how effective they actually are. It is all in what is measured, how it is measured, and over what intervals. If someone’s key performance indicators (KPIs) are all green and acceptable, be suspicious – especially if there seem to be operational problems. Remember the phrase, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’

What your clients see as the simplest tasks are the ones where they will set the highest standard for consistent successful delivery. That’s because if people see them as trivial, the kind of thing they could do, then any shortfall on your part will lead them to believe that they could do a better job than you.