Cottage cheese, and the mindless adherence to rules.

My wife got busted by the TSA yesterday.

She was laboriously making her way through airport security at SFO — shoes off, computer out, liquids in a bag — when they busted her for her 5oz. container of cottage cheese. That’s right. Cottage cheese.

TSA Agent: “It’s on the FAA’s list of prohibited items.”

Wife: “No, it’s not. I’ve looked at the website, and there’s no mention of cottage cheese.”

TSA (after convening a five minute rabbinical council of the other TSA agents): “Cottage cheese is actually a gel, and therefore subject to the 3oz rule.” (No word on whether the size of the curds and the percentage of milk fat factored into their decision.)

Wife: If I took the cottage cheese out of the container and mixed in fruit and nuts, would that be okay?

TSA: Yup. (Helpfully) You should also know that if the cottage cheese is a medical necessity, you’re allowed to bring it through security.”

Wife: “I’m a doctor. If I write a prescription for myself saying that cottage cheese is a dietary requirement for me, and I show it to you, you’ll let me go through?”

TSA: “That’s right, ma’am. Just show us the prescription and it’ll be no problem.”

I tell this story not because I want to highlight the lunacy of security theater and the TSA’s policies. That’s been done many times before. What’s relevant to you, as a leader, is the danger of creating a culture of unthinking obedience to rules. In this story, you’ve got individual TSA agents unable to use commonsense judgement in dealing with a non-standard situation. Cottage cheese isn’t quite a solid, and it’s definitely not a liquid. What do we do? I know! Let’s call it a gel so that we can mindlessly follow the rules and ban it! But of course if it were re-categorized as lunch (by adding fruit and nuts) or if it were medically required by a doctor, then we can follow those other rules, and allow it.

This kind of unthinking adherence to rules creates an enormous amount of waste — not to mention extreme customer dissatisfaction. In the case of the TSA, of course, there aren’t many other options. Unless you’re one of the elite few, you’re probably flying commercial, and Greyhound isn’t a viable alternative. But in the case of your company, there probably are plenty of other firms that provide similar products or services.

I once tried to return a mattress 18 months after I bought it. It had begun to sag badly in that short time, and it seemed pretty clear to me that it was defective. Since it came with a 10 year warranty, I figured that I’d have no problem exchanging it for a new one. But when I was on the phone with customer service, they required it to be in essentially unused condition in order to validate the warranty. No stains. No abrasions. No signs of wear and tear. Proof (!) that the mattress was sitting on the right kind of bedframe all the time. More documentation than I needed when I refinanced my house. And all this despite the very obvious evidence that the mattress was simply defective. But the customer service agent was unthinkingly following the script, and that’s what it told her to demand. Needless to say, I didn’t get my mattress exchanged. And I’ve never bought a mattress from that company again.

Have you checked your returns, exchange, and warranty policy recently? Have you looked into the latitude that your customer service reps have in dealing with customer complaints? Odds are that if you looked at those policies from a customer’s perspective, you might change some of them. Otherwise, you might as well start confiscating cottage cheese.



One thought on “Cottage cheese, and the mindless adherence to rules.

  1. Pingback: Management Improvement Carnival #142 » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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