BT and the Man with a Hammer

Years ago, when Process Management was all the rage, and overhead projectors were the very latest in presentation technology, everyone at my employer had to be trained in it.  I remember sitting through a training session about an imaginary bottling line.  The acetate slides showed an illustration of empty bottles passing through a machine, being filled up with liquid and then being capped with metal lids.

A second slide showed an unhappy manager, hands on hips eyebrows inverted in displeasure, standing beside the conveyor belt observing that the bottles now emerging from the machine were no longer all neatly capped; every third one was sporting a crooked lid.

Oh, no.  What could we do, as managers, to solve this terrible problem?

The third slide showed the same bottling line, now with a workman standing beside the belt.  He had been furnished with a hammer and the instruction to bang all the crooked tops until they were straight.  He stood there, hammer raised to shoulder height, a huge smile on his face, while his supervisor stood to one side, his arms crossed with the knowing satisfaction of a problem solved.

The person conduction the training session looked around the room at us.  What was wrong with this solution? he asked.   Did we want to be an organisation in which a man with a hammer was required to solve a problem, or did we want to be a super efficient one with a well oiled properly function machine?

Most organisations I’ve worked for since have had at least one (wo)man wielding the proverbial hammer, in fact, sometimes I think it’s been me, but I have never so forcibly been reminded of those slides than in my recent dealings with BT over an intermittent, but regularly occurring, fault with my broadband.

It all started at the end of December when one of the casualties of a car accident in the street outside was the junction box which sits on the pavement and through which I receive my telephone and broadband service.  I had neither for about 5 days, before  the service was restored.  Over the next few days, however, the broadband stopped working for a couple of hours any time between about 7 and 9:30 am.  Each time I went though the manual checking rigmarole with the PC, the modem and all the wires, and each time it would start again eventually, even though I wasn’t sure why.

After a week or so of frustration with the regularity of the failures, I called the Help Desk.  The person to whom I spoke, let’s call them Mallet 1, had me identify which lights were on which were off, had me pressing reset buttons and switching things on and off.  They tested the line and told me I had no broadband.  And then they told me I did.  I could hear them smiling.

When I had exactly the same conversation with Mallet 2 a few days later, they agreed to send out an engineer.  During his visit Tack Hammer found something to fix in the cupboard in the corridor, but told me to monitor the service.  Over the subsequent three weeks twice each day I made a note each time the system stopped working.  The failures were so regular I was sure it had to be something to do with maintenance, and I had a sheet of paper filled with times.

Mallet 3 spent so long testing the line that the battery in my land-line phone handset died.

Mallet 4 wasn’t smiling at all when I refused to press the rest button or to swap the ends of the connecting cable around, and insisted that it was something wrong with the system centrally.  He sent me another engineer.

I opened the door to Sledge Hammer, and he stood on the threshold and said ‘Your broadband stops working every morning about 8 o’clock for an hour or so, and then again in the evening about 6, doesn’t it?

I nodded.

‘Everyone around here is having the same problem.  I’ve been to 6 customers already, but there’s nothing I can do about it.  It’s because, since the car crash in the road, the junction box is being powered by battery, and it runs out twice a day and a man has to come and replace it.’

‘Why couldn’t anyone on the Help Desk tell me that, instead of wasting my time fiddling about testing the line?’

‘I don’t really know.  But everyone around here must have made as many calls as you, and I have to keep the appointments even though there’s nothing I can do.’

Finally, an explanation that made sense, but what an exasperating one.  I tweeted about the absurdity of the situation, and was contacted by Toffee Hammer at Customer Care.  He laughed when I told him that my broadband was being powered by battery, and told me that was unlikely.

Through the local grapevine, I identified two of my neighbours with the same problem.  Their tales of Help Desk and engineers’ visits mirrored mine.  By dint of sending an email to the Chief Executive, one was receiving attention from Pick Axe in the office that deals with complaints sent to the CEO.  Pick Axe knew about the batteries, but could offer no promise of when the junction box would be reconnected to mains electricity.

I put Toffee Hammer in touch with Pick Axe, and he smiled, and stopped laughing at the idea of a battery powered fibre optic information superhighway.

By the time I was corresponding with Toffee Hammer  the regular periods of no service were down to a couple of periods a day of about 30 minutes each, and I could tell he thought my level of exasperation with the failure in the service was a bit exaggerated.  But he, like Sledge Hammer, Pick Axe and Mallets 1 to 4 before him, fail to appreciate that I have long since grown tired of complaining about the constant interruptions to the service; but what still has the power to enrage me is the amount of time I have wasted in pointless phone calls and engineers’ visits, explaining to one representative of BT a set of facts already well known to another.

They’re all doing their smiling best, it’s the machine that’s broken.

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  1. Trapped in an Inefficient Routine | Reading and Writing

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