Monday, September 26

Of Grocery Store Self-Serve Checkout and Post Offices

You may rightly ask yourself what grocery store self-serve checkout has to do with post offices.  Go ahead.  Ask yourself.  We’ll wait while you answer yourself.  And then we can compare notes.

So this is what my Self came up with as I made this weird zigzaggy series of turns to make some sort of connection: demographics.  Okay, so I could possibly throw in the Dodd-Frank banking law, but let’s not complicate this any further. . . and with politics.

In an article about grocery store self-serve checkout and how some chains are opting to remove self-serve checkout lanes, a lot of the rationale seemed to relate to the demographics of the shoppers.  That is store managers and executives being aware of and sensitive to their customers’ needs and inclination.  Sorry.  I should have warned you that was coming.  You must be flabbergasted an organization might put its customers first.  I hope you didn’t spill your coffee.  Let’s carry on.

So the store managers and executives might be opting to remove the self-serve checkout lanes, but some may choose to keep the lanes because their demographics indicate there are fewer problems, less likelihood of accidental or intentional theft, etc.  By the same token, they also realize there are changes coming in the form of changing barcodes so those readers might need to be changed anyway.  The bottom line, though, is that many of the chains have the same position as the folks at Stop & Shop Supermarket Co whose spokesperson, Suzi Robinson, said, “Our philosophy is giving customers options. People shop in different ways and we want to accommodate their preferences.”  I know.  Freaky, isn’t it?  A corporation thinking about and being mindful of its customers.  Makes me feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

And what has this, you might ask impatiently ask, to do with post offices?  If you’ve read almost anything related to the news in the past few weeks, you know the post office is in debt and will be almost completely defunct by some time next year.  Sure, we can blame outdated laws and restrictions, UPS and FedEx, ecommerce, and more.  Yep, all of that has contributed to what may be the imminent demise of the United States Postal Service as we know it.

In response to articles that the USPS was in trouble, I read article by people who lamented the possible passing of the rural post office because it is a place to which the elderly go as part of their daily ritual or the post office is a sort of central hub for the community.

Before I dive into this, let me say that one of my mostest favorite books is Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season because of the way it celebrates, almost promotes, the one-room schoolhouse.  Yea, that’s appropo of pretty much nothing, but I want to make it clear that though I live in suburbia, I’m not picking on rural communities.  However, let me also say that small rural communities that are hanging on to that small rural community by the nails of every one of its residents plus those of all of their pets and livestock need to step back and reassess.  It is a terrible thing when a community or town is no longer, and seems cold-hearted to say that sometimes it simply makes more sense to let it go and move.  And I know it’s not that simple for all of the people or they might have already moved.  But to keep a post office open simply because it is a place to go for the elderly doesn’t make much sense to me, certainly not as a long-term strategy.

Is there an alternative?  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the post office and I can’t even imagine trying to develop criteria to determine which rural stations stay open and which close.  So can we step away from the issue of the post office and look at the issue of the community?  That’s right: the demographics.

Are the “young people” leaving because there is nothing to hold them?  Is there nothing to hold them because there is no one willing and able to invest in that community?  Is there something in which someone might invest and, if so, what are the community’s options to create a plan and campaign to get those investors?  What are the other dozen or so hard questions the community has to ask itself about its viability?  What does the community need to become strong and vital again?  And is it worth the investment to make that happen?

I read an article not too long ago in which the author said that if the factory had closed and all the related business had closed or moved away, it was probably pointless to wait for that particular business to reopen in that factory.  The people had a choice to move or to find ways to get someone to invest in that factory and that community.

Almost a digression.  We complain that jobs are going overseas and yet too many communities seem to have a sense of entitlement based on what once was or what they hoped would be as though they haven’t quite gotten the message that the economy is in the toilet.  I’d be willing to bet that some organizations would be willing to bring back jobs to certain communities but the expectations on both sides would have to be reasonable.  I’d also be willing to bet that some universities in some proximity to those communities might be willing to open temporary-to-permanent campuses to help people get trained or retrained to prepare for those jobs.  Yes, I know this is not a simple solution and it all comes back to money, but what if those corporations agreed they’d pay a fair wage (and I know “fair” is not a value-neutral term) and also offered to pay tuition for the community university center provided the employees agreed they would work off that tuition at 20% per year or pay the balance when they left the company.  There are lots of places with that sort of policy in place.  And what if the corporation hired someone as part of its management staff who could work with the executives and managers to help make sure the employees took courses that actually made sense AND acted as a liaison with the community university to help make sure those courses were actually offered.  And maybe even some of the executives and managers could be the faculty and who knows what kind of talent and abilities might be hidden in the community to offer some or several vocational or other kinds of courses that might be of value to that community? 

And then that community might have a more vibrant reason for being and then supplemental businesses would return and then there might still be a need for a post office.

Of course, it won't work for a lot of reasons, not just because too many investors and too many corporate bigwigs are only interested in getting theirs and getting out of town rather than seeing what they can do to make a difference and leave a truly lasting legacy, or too many citizens whine about too many things without actually making an effort to solve the problem.

Oh well.  I have more thoughts on the whole post office thing, but I think this is enough for now.

Monday, September 12

Why I Hate "Best Practices"

The phrase, people.  It’s the phrase I can’t abide, not the idea or intent of so-called best practices.

Why?  It’s irrational.  It’s grammar geeky.  But let’s go to the dictionary anyway.

adj. Superlative of good.
adv. Superlative of well

See?  A “best” practice has to be unsurpassable.  Not gonna happen.

“Best practice” suggests there is no or little room for improvement.

But “the best-possible-practice-until-we-improve-on-it” is awkward and not very catchy.  And “the-practice-we’re-using-right-now-because-it-works-best-for-us-in-our-situation-for-now” is worse.

What prompted this, again, is a blog post I read as I was trying to catch up on some of my reading.  The title of the blog post?  “Whena Best Practice is a Worst Practice.”  I was kind of digging that, but right away the author, Mitch Ditkoff, suggests he might actually like (ergo “approve of”?) best practices. 

I sighed and kept reading.  And there was kind of a payday for that persistence.

Ditkoff writes:
People start becoming satisfied with emulating other people's lives.  Instead of thinking up their own best practices, they imitate.  Ouch!  
The spirit of innovation gets replaced by the religion of innovation.  
Gone is reflection.  Gone is the process of discovery.  Gone is the ownership that comes with birthing new insights.  In it's place?  SimulationImitation.  And, all too often, the blind following of pre-packaged solutions.  
I'm not saying there isn't value in paying attention to other people's best practices.  There is.  
But when imitation replaces creation, something invariably gets lost--and innovation eventually goes down the drain.
Here’s what I’d like to add to Mr. Ditkoff’s comments.  Reflection and discovery are key not only to innovation, but to making sure that the practices in place—the processes and procedures, the models and templates, the RASCI or SIPOC or whatever mechanism(s) you use—make sense!

If you want a real (IMO) best practice: be sure you regularly review your “best” practices to make sure they are the most valuable, most reasonable, most viable, most pragmatic, most whatever practices you can have in place given all of the factors of your work place or your situation.  And when you reflect on those practices, when you seek to discover if they are in fact still the “best practices we can have in place right now,” be sure you look up and around and think about the others who intersect with you and your work, who need or want to collaborate with you and your colleagues, who depend on your work and practices, etc.  Please, please be sure your review, reflection, and discovery are meaningful.  And then don’t be afraid to improve on those “best practices until we found that we forgot to think about this situation” practices.

Friday, September 9

Remembering September 11

I see reminders everywhere of September 11, 2001 and we approach the 10-year anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers and oft-forgotten planes that crashed into the Pentagon and, thanks to the quick-thinking of four brave men, into a field in Pennsylvania.

When we are encouraged, maybe chided, into remembering September 11, what is the purpose?  When we are asked, maybe challenged, not to forget September 11, what is the purpose? 

Is it so we will remain our emotions of that day?

Is it so we will reflect on what we have learned and how far we have come and evolved as a nation?

Is it so we will contemplate how the emotions and eventual political grandstanding of that day led to an apparently ill-advised and protracted war in Iraq?

Is it so we will think about the additional lives lost because of that war?

Is it so we will reflect on the enmity that rose against Middle Easterners in general and Muslims in particular?

Is it so we will examine how the events of that day tumbled into the political fracas that exists today?  So we can trace a thread from the political and military missteps, from the full-throated hawks and desk-driving Monday-morning quarterbacking generals who directed us, pushed us into the mire that became the Iraqi war?  So we can see if there is a direct connection between the adolescent behavior of our politicians in Congress today and that moment in time?  So we can ponder the likelihood that the Tea Party might never have been if it weren’t for that day?

Is it so we can remember the feeling of the vulnerability and the shock that such a thing could happen to Americans and on American soil?

Is it so we can remember the hate and the mindless lust for revenge?

Is it so we can remember the brave men and women who rushed into to try to save others? 

Is it so we can remember the horror of pictures of people falling and often apparently choosing to leap to their deaths?

Is it so we can remain the pain of loved ones lost and honor their memories?

Is it so we can remember the fallen emergency response teams?  Is it so we can remember and honor the firefighters and police and EMTs and countless others who simply did their jobs in spite of the obvious enormity of the tragedy, in spite of the obvious enormity of the risk to their own lives and persons?

Is it?