– Have we become too apathetic to fight back?

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There is only one thing worse than incompetence, and that is accepting it. I began thinking about this over the holidays when I took an ocean cruise. I have taken many such cruises over the years and have traveled on many different lines, some better than others. The line and ship I took this year was new to me. It was a large ship with about 2,200 passengers and was a part of a well known shipping line. Our destination was the Western Caribbean where I hoped to relax and catch up on my reading. I graded the food on board as “fair” at best, but I was particularly appalled by the embarking and disembarking procedures on/off the ship. Our first port of call was in the Honduras where I had scheduled a round of golf. There was only one problem, I couldn’t get off the ship.

There were many other excursions planned at the same time, such as snorkeling, going to the beach, and boat rides. Everyone was asked to go to the ship’s theater where they were to await instructions. Unfortunately, the people running it obviously didn’t know what they were doing. What should have been a simple disembarkation process turned into an hour of madness. I’ve never experienced such confusion on a ship before. Even worse was returning to the ship where we were faced with a long single line of passengers. Some simple systems would have easily alleviated the problem, but the ship’s personnel had no comprehension of this, nor seemed to care.

We see this same type of incompetence in the corporate world where there is no sense of systems. Instead of studying transaction processing (volume versus speed), companies are content to settle for quick and dirty programming solutions. This is like applying a Band-Aid when a tourniquet or amputation is needed. Management seems oblivious to the problem and, as such, doesn’t appear to be too concerned with correcting it.

In the political and fraternal organizations I have been involved with I see little in the way of standard practices. In one particular organization, there are hundreds of jurisdictions around the world, none of which follow the exact same protocols. Even within a single jurisdiction, with several districts and hundreds of chapters, there are no standards for doing such things as taking minutes, maintaining membership records, or basic accounting. Standard practices would simplify the administrative life of the chapter and would make it possible to measure the performance of one chapter against another, but for some reason this cannot be done in today’s world of the computer. In fact, the jurisdictions openly resist standards thereby affecting communications, promoting incompetence, which in turn thwarts membership and prosperity.

It is generally agreed our government is plagued by gridlock. What little legislation that is passed is based on extreme compromise. Consequently, we lack foresight, decisiveness and leadership. We also find ourselves in a reactive form of government where we are no longer in control of our destiny. We have a long history of such compromise in America. To illustrate, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and Compromise of 1850 were designed to maintain the peace between the North and the South. They pacified conditions for the moment, but only delayed the inevitable, Civil War.

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements denote a sense of frustration with the current political system, but feel impeded from ultimately changing it (even though the Tea Party was able to successfully elect Congressmen). A legitimate third party might offer some checks and balances, but this has never been proven to be a viable option.

The lack of effective systems, methods, techniques, and skilled people has led to an era of incompetence. Normally, we would be frustrated by such problems, but are we really? I contend we have been conditioned to tolerate and accept such incompetence. But why?

First, we must understand incompetence is a man-made invention. It assumes there are better systems, methods, techniques, and skilled individuals for performing certain tasks, yet we elect to operate under inferior conditions. Instead of planning and designing suitable systems, we patch together counter-productive systems and force it upon our customers. Instead of following proper methods, techniques and tools, we use the wrong tool to drive a square peg through a round hole. Instead of trying to match the right person to the right job, we engage the Peter Principle whereby people rise above their level of competency and the cream settles on the bottom as opposed to allowing it to float to the top. We see this in companies and nonprofits where people are promoted to a level exceeding their competency. We also vividly see it in government. Politicians are one of the few professions not required certification or a degree. Doctors, attorneys, engineers and construction workers require certification, as does I.T. workers, auto mechanics and many others, but not politicians, including Congressmen and the President of the United States.

Part of our problem resides in our inability to measure productivity and customer satisfaction in a consistent manner. It is not uncommon for companies to cook the books to make the company look better than it really is (again, due to the lack of standard practices). Instead of analyzing profit margins, companies will report on volume sales (but not products recalled or returned). Instead of analyzing customer satisfaction they rely on industry press clippings. Understand this, even if you have zero defects in your manufacturing systems, but your customers are unsatisfied with your products, you have a disaster in the making. In terms of measuring work, you need to study BOTH inputs and outputs.

There are three alternatives in dealing with incompetence:

1. Acceptance – the reasons are varied, but primarily because we do not know any better and do not wish to upset the status quo, or worse, we feel powerless to fight city hall. Politics and social mores also suggest we should bite our tongues as opposed to resisting incompetence. More than anything though, we have been conditioned to accept mediocrity and inferior workmanship. We no longer applaud the craftsman, but the huckster instead.

2. Change – this represents those people unhappy with the status quo and are willing to try and change it by working lawfully within the system. Unfortunately, they are often impeded by the authorities who want to preserve the current institution.

3. Rejection – two things can happen here; either a person drops out of the system or supports an uprising to radically change the status quo. To illustrate, many young people today are frustrated by the actions (or inactions) of their federal and state governments. Consequently, they opt out by refusing to vote in elections as they see it as a pointless endeavor. The antithesis of this are the people who are willing to take up arms in opposition to the status quo. We saw signs of this recently, such as in Nevada where ranchers stared down the federal government over grazing rights.

Of these three alternatives, “Acceptance” is the most dominant, primarily because people are willing to bow to the status quo whether they like it or not; they simply do not want to fight it and, by doing so, act as a herd of animals (aka “sheeple”).

Perhaps the best way to resist incompetence is to simply voice your concern. In most instances, the powers that be, corporate executives for example, are sheltered from the realities of the world through multiple layers of bureaucracy. As such, they are unaware of customer dissatisfaction or the inadequacies of their systems, until havoc strikes (which is too late). Correspondence or a telephone call to the right person in the corporate hierarchy can work wonders. However, this can only happen if the customer is not apathetic and unwilling to accept incompetence.

I have a friend who recently wanted to renew his annual membership in a local gym which is part of a national chain. The receptionist told him he could either pay month-to-month or purchase a three year membership. When he asked why they abandoned the one year membership program, she claimed they never had such a program. The manager of the gym wasn’t much brighter, but instead of accepting incompetence, my friend bought a one year membership in the local YMCA (for more money I might add). After he told me his story, I urged him to send a letter or e-mail to the gym’s corporate office describing the same story he had just told me. “If executives are unaware of the problem, they will never be able to correct it,” I said, “You would be doing them a favor by bringing this to their attention.” As of today, my friend has yet to receive a “Thank You” of any kind from the company.

In my situation, when I saw the confusion in the ship’s theater, I went down to the excursion desk and asked how to get off the ship. The manager put me in touch with the exit coordinator who promptly got me off the ship. True, a little bitching can go a long way, but it shouldn’t have been necessary to resort to this. The fact remains though, by not accepting incompetence, I was able to control my destiny. Had I not done so, I would have likely missed my golf outing, something I had paid for in advance.

As a consumer, I pay particular attention to incompetent service and warn my friends accordingly, such as bad restaurants, products, maintenance services, and cruise lines. In some instances, this is the only way to fight back.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

For Tim’s columns, see:  timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2015 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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Listen to Tim on WJTN-AM (News Talk 1240) “The Town Square” with host John Siggins (Mon, Wed, Fri, 12:30-3:00pm Eastern); WZIG-FM (104.1) in Palm Harbor,FL; and KIT-AM 1280 in Yakima, Washington “The Morning News” with hosts Dave Ettl & Lance Tormey (weekdays. 6:00-9:00am Pacific). Or tune-in to Tim’s channel on YouTube.

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