Lessons in Business Agility From the Tourist Left Out in the Cold

21 Sep 2022

I was travelling with my family. Our summer holidays took us outside our own country, and we took our (electric) car there. And, as it happens, while travelling through the other country, at the end of the day, around 5pm, some 30km away from our temporary lodging, ‘it’ happened. 

In a mountainous area, I had to give way to a car coming toward me and speeding a little. So, I gave some space and went onto the verge. Afterwards, I heard a bit of a hissing noise, and discovered my left rear tyre was punctured by a rock I had hit. So, at a small unofficial parking spot, I pulled over, checked my car and yes, the tyre was gone. It was an almost new car, and had no spare tyre.

Stranded! 

My family were all very calm about it, “you know Dad this always happens on our holidays”. And of course, we were stranded in an area with no coverage for mobile phones. We met some nice hikers (who were there with their car) who offered to take us to a hotel, some 6km back down the road, where we would expect to get mobile coverage and be able to start arranging things. This worked just fine; the hikers went back, and we started to make phone calls. A new tyre would be great! We could then arrange some food and just get on our way. 

Organising a new tyre

I called our insurance at home (which you need to do so they can start helping you, particularly when you’re overseas). After 25 minutes of waiting for a connection (yes, holiday season, busy), we got someone on the phone. “So, please send us your position”. Well yes, but that is not the position where we’re stranded. Ok, so return to where the car is and send us that location. Ehm, yes, but we cannot do that because there is no coverage from where we’re stranded. We can send you the location using a usual location app, but not the specific one. No, you have to go back…. Well, this discussion took more than 10 minutes. Protocol says you need to be at your car and then send the location. Which was impossible. In the end, I told them (number by number) the location of the stranded car. They checked what they saw (roads etc) so we were absolutely sure. They told me then they would contact the sister organisation in the country we were in, and they would show up within 2 hours. If not, I’d have to contact them again. I explicitly told them that I could not contact them again, because once I got back to the car I would probably not be able to get back to a location with mobile signal. They assured me they would make sure that I was helped.

The long wait

So my family got the taxi back to our B&B, and I hitched a ride back to my car. It was slowly getting dark. After 2 hours, nothing had happened. I asked the hikers (who had decided to stay there in their tent for the night), to take care of my car, and they transferred me back to the hotel to make another call. I called my insurers, and again after 25 minutes (still busy, now at 9pm). They told me that the repair service should’ve arrived 20 minutes ago. When I told them I was there all the time, they told me that I must have gone away from my car (…. No I hadn’t??). They would contact their partner organisation in the country I was in and call me back. So, I had a drink and waited … for 45 minutes, no call. I decided to give my wife a call so that she needn’t wait up for me … I had a key. After 45 minutes I called again(!) (in the queue again), something must have gone wrong, let me check … after another 15 minutes …  Yes, we are now sure. You will be picked up at 1.30am. People, I’m really in the middle of nowhere, you stood me up once, I have no means to get back here. 

Yes, everything is now taken care of; we are now 100% sure and everyone knows you cannot be contacted. 

Famous last words, as you’d have guessed and I expected by now …. I spent the night in my car waiting for people who didn’t show up. Next morning …. transferred back to the hotel. Well, sorry, the towing truck didn’t want to go into the mountains at night … (so they rather left me there??). But we sent a taxi to pick you up, didn’t we (no you didn’t). In 2 hours (so by 9am), they will pick you up. Go back to your car. So I went back, said bye to the hikers and waited. 9am, nothing, 9:30, nothing. I hitched a ride to another hotel, and had another call. My insurance company had got the call that everything was already sorted, the sister organisation in the country I was in was not to be reached ….  After 5 more calls to several organisations, it was agreed I still needed help. By 1:30pm a tow truck would pick me up at the new hotel, take me to my car, get it repaired and get me on my way.

At 1:30 … nothing, at 2pm … YES a tow truck. Who were there for my car, but could not transport me ( a 2-person tow truck cannot take 3). And they had received the wrong instructions for my car, it had to be towed more than 3 hours from where I was … A taxi had been called to pick me up. 

Agility kicks in…

Then the driver took charge and said: 3 hours from here is madness, what’s the size of your tyre that needs to be replaced? He called up 2 tyre repair companies, found one with this tyre in stock and told the insurers – I’m going to take the car there to be repaired. Please make sure the taxi gets there too. Finally, real help!!! Taxi to arrive in 20 minutes, and the tow truck drove off with the keys to my car.

After 20 minutes …. No taxi! 5 phone calls later … (at the 3rd call, one of the persons “in between”, who was one of the persons who really tried to SOLVE my problem, said, I’m sorry I have to give up.)
In the end I refused to be called back but asked them to resolve it while I was waiting, and finally a taxi was organised (new …. According to the system no one had asked for a taxi … for more than 3 times?). I’ve been trying for over 30 minutes to get something arranged and I cannot get through … This time, a taxi arrived (30 minutes late, who cares), took me to the tyre shop where my car was repaired (we arrived 10 minutes before the shop closed), and I could drive it back to my family. All’s well that ends well …

So what has this to do with business agility? Let me share some thoughts!!!

I felt somehow I should be the customer, and where the focus should lie, no one really took care of me. Had they taken care of me, they would not have left me alone in the mountains at night; they would have understood they would need to take special care because there were difficulties in contacting me; I would not have been lost in between systems, shift changes, undelivered promises. And guess what, if the insurance company had called someone to replace my tyre, I would have been all the happier, costs would’ve been much, much lower, stress would’ve been lower for everyone. But, the system! The system says no.

Agile People make decisions based on what is best to resolve the situation, to their best assessment of all involved and serving the customer as best they can. In this case, the guy from the tow truck actually understood the situation and acted upon it. He showed leadership and decided to make my situation better using his skills and knowledge. He had to convince a number of people (who said the system didn’t like it), but he just pushed ahead.

As for Culture, we can safely say that almost all the organisations involved did not have an agile culture. They were thrown into a situation that doesn’t happen often (a car stranded where there is no phone connectivity), and were completely unable to handle it. Therefore, the situation fell into the cracks every time, they were unable to keep track and ensure it had been resolved. So, it became the customer’s problem. I must have done all things wrong. In several of the phone calls I made, I was redirected to 1 or even 2 levels up the chain of command, and was made promises people shouldn’t have made because they couldn’t follow up. In an agile culture, people care, people understand, people try to make it work, and people support each other. They don’t leave people in the mountains – I hate the cold.

And Governance… So many people to call, so many people to hide behind, so many people not taking responsibility for decisions. Governance was very hierarchical and was not able to be evaded because the situation called for it. Stick to the procedure, even when it is not working (remember the first person I got on the phone: I needed to get back to where the car was … without a connection … because the system said so!) But, you know, this is also a communication problem between organisations! You cannot blame just one of them! YES RIGHT!! If your organisation tries to become more agile and you don’t include your ecosystem – the organisations with which you cooperate downstream and upstream, and perhaps even the competition – then you are never going to be an agile organisation. No single organisation in current times is fully capable of delivering value all by themselves. So please remember in your business agility journey … you’re only as agile as your ecosystem allows you to be.

Reflecting back

For those with eagle eyes, you may have noticed I’ve been working my way around the Framework for Business Agility.  Agile strategy? … no real example here as I didn’t have a line-of-sight into the organisations that were failing to offer me value.

Would Scrum, SAFe, or AgilePM have helped? No, business agility is not defined by processes, but by how an organisation adapts to the required ask. The involved organisations might use these (or similar) frameworks (actually, some of them do …). It doesn’t make them agile. It doesn’t encourage them to help their customer. It doesn’t help them ensure the solution is better and cheaper. In the situation here, it was clear that procedures ruled, and strictly ruled. And the procedures were not focused on helping people in trouble (which should be the primary focus). It seemed everything was focused on efficiency. Arguably, this is good for a lot of situations. 

Agility v efficiency

So do the involved organisations need to be agile, or do they need to be efficient? Of course, having to wait for 25 minutes (several times) to get a call through will ensure that people will find other solutions (which arguably I could perhaps have done!!) If that is not an efficient solution (from the insurance company’s point of view), what is?

I know this, for sure: all the people involved in this situation tried to help me. They got stuck in the systems which, sometimes to their frustration, did not allow them to do the things they KNEW were right. Thanks to all people who tried to help. Thanks for the leadership shown, despite the system. And to the people defining these systems, who are unlikely to read this, but to them I suggest that combining some agility with efficiency would enhance your performance tremendously, and would lower your cost. Efficiency is good, but not when it doesn’t lead to the right results.

Finally, of course not having a spare tyre decreased my own agility. Not needing a spare tyre for many years and being regularly short of space (and it actually not being an option when I bought the car), it passed my mind and I just let it go...