Who Manages The Managers? - Part II

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek



Who Manages The Managers – Part II


The tale about the Footloose Forester who long ago was a driver for Speedy Rent-a-Car in Pawtucket, Wisconsin was a true story about actual events. However, in order to protect the good names and reputations of those who had to endure the mismanagement of the bosses, the Footloose Forester chose to disguise the name of the city, the name of the car rental company; and the approximate years when the events unfolded.  The original story did not take place in Pawtucket, Wisconsin; and neither did this one. Nonetheless, Part II of the grander tale carries on with the story of Speedy Rent-a-Car and its inept management. Thus, the story is a fictionalized version of what actually happened.

Speedy Rent-a-Car was no slouch in the car rental business.  We as a company had national recognition and Pawtucket, Wisconsin was only one of its 600 locations.  With Footloose Forester as one lowly employee with the job description of driver at the Pawtucket location, we as a franchise city, managed an inventory of over 1200 cars, with rental and auto maintenance facilities at six different locations in the metropolitan area.


There was a year-round process of acquiring new cars from the manufacturer; inspecting them for quality control; registering and plating them with the required stickers as mandated by law in Wisconsin; putting the new cars online for rental; and servicing the dirty ones after being returned; and, finally, disposing of the older cars after a year or two when they had attained a “high mileage” designation beyond the lower limits set by the company. The high mileage designation was usually set at 20,000-24,000 odometer miles, but often went beyond that.  A few times throughout the years; and for reasons nobody could explain, perfectly good cars that were less than two years old were retired with less than 15,000 miles on their odometers.  It was company policy and employees who were not managers did not challenge company policy. Speedy’s Corporate Headquarters in Boondocks, Alaska set that policy, so even the local managers in Pawtucket did not, or could not change it.

Understanding something about the setting; the sequence of management procedures; the operations cycles; and the job roles of the individual class of employees—all had something to do with the aura of mismanagement that infected our franchise in Pawtucket. The obvious lack of focus among individual shift managers; their status in the chain of command; and the glaring mismanagement at the city manager level, perhaps as a consequence of everybody thinking of themselves as soldiers who were taking their orders in a chain of command that led all the way back to Boondocks, Alaska.

Pawtucket may not be listed as one of the larger cities in Wisconsin, but Speedy Rent-a-Car did $10 million worth of business there, each and every month from spring through autumn.  Corporate Headquarters was aware that we had employees of every stripe and job title: senior managers, shift managers, mechanics, service agents, sales agents, drivers, rover/greeters, specialists who monitored the tagging and licensing; and those who worked part-time, sometimes on call. The business called for quick decision-making, intelligent management, and leadership; but in the opinion of the Footloose Forester, all he ever saw was management—inept management.

Who decides the management policies? ANSWER: The executives and seasoned managers at Corporate Headquarters in Boondocks, Alaska.  And who manages the managers at Corporate Headquarters?  ANSWER:  Only those at the very top of the corporate structure. The issue of policy formation is presumably not a major issue there; after all, Speedy Rent-a-Car has been an industry leader for 50 years. Oh, there may be a bad apple from time to time, but most of the employees outside of corporate circles never hear about it; and many do not care.  But what about the management at the city/franchise level?  When it comes to the operation of Speedy Rent-a-Car in Pawtucket, Wisconsin, who manages the managers?  ANSWER: The city manager manages those below him/her.  And if the city manager himself/herself is incompetent, who manages them? ANSWER: Apparently, nobody. The day-to-day operations proceed apace with everybody, in all job categories doing their jobs according to what they have learned from past and present employees; or by virtue of the skills they originally brought with them to the job. Even a manager does not tell a master mechanic how to do his/her job.  The manager presumably manages the cohesiveness aspects of the staff; and the day-to-day operations of the franchise, itself.

One key aspect of that cohesiveness purportedly would include the training of shift managers and bosses of various workgroups. Since there are normally a handful or more of workers in such categories as maintenance service agents, sales staff, and drivers; one final question is; who manages the franchise manager in the face of that person's weaknesses?

Up until now, this tale has been about painting a picture of the overall operations of a car rental business that could apply to any metropolitan area. The fundamental components are the same: the cars, the maintenance and service areas, the sales offices, and the cadres of employees that operate in those arenas.  On the other end of the business is the customer base. Having the number and kinds of cars that paying customers want is also fundamental, but having clean, roadworthy cars of preferred makes and models that meet every expectation pursuant to customer satisfaction is one unstated goal that must be met consistently, if the franchise is to prosper. Those ideals would seem to require nothing more than pronouncing them as part of a poster campaign.  Making it happen is what constitutes a genuine and effective management approach. However, since every city is different; every state is different, and circumstances surrounding the disposition of rental cars to satisfy local conditions is one departure point from the slogans of the advertising poster to the realities of the supplier-consumer interface. In Maine, the Speedy franchise must deal with car rentals under conditions of snow and cold temperatures. In sunny San Diego, sales agents must be aware of the pros and cons of various models of convertibles. 

In any city, however, If the cars are not ready on time, in a place that is convenient to access them; the average customer will not be pleased.  If the maintenance work that was purportedly completed was not, in fact, completed; then the customer will not be happy.  If the license tags and registration stickers that are displayed on the exterior of the cars are not currently valid, the customer will not be happy; particularly if he/she intends to have the vehicle on rental for a long period of time; or intends to drive the car out of state where its registration status may be challenged by the police. After all, the car belongs to Speedy Rent-a-Car and its registration status resides with Speedy; and not with the renter.  On the other hand, if the renter gets caught with a safety inspection sticker that is out of date, they are in jeopardy of getting a ticket that they must pay.  If the renter in a strange car in a strange city has a registration sticker that is expired, the police in many states will write a ticket for that expired registration status.  It's Speedy’s car and Speedy’s responsibility, but the renter has to pay the ticket, if given a citation by the police.

With a normal daytime staff of 20-25 employees during the height of the travel season, Speedy Rent-a-Car should have had enough “manpower” to take care of the servicing, then renting of vehicles in a coordinated manner.  That is where the lack of foresight showed its ugly head in Pawtucket.

Often the cars that were hastily prepared had ashtrays that had not been properly cleaned out; or windshields that had not been cleansed of previous road smudges. Both tasks were the responsibility of the service agents who worked in the service area that was a mile from the rental area where customers picked up their cars.  If the customer noticed a dirty window or ashes in the ashtray, then the tasks fell to the drivers, the last Speedy employees they saw before driving off.  A mile back to have it done by a service agent was not the answer, and often the renter was too impatient to wait during a two-mile round trip. Cleaning the windshield or the ashtray should not have been a problem for the driver; if the drivers were trained how to do the job properly; and if that training was part of their job qualifications; more important, if conducting incidental duties were included in their job descriptions.  Drivers, however; were not supposed to wipe windshields or clean out ashtrays. They were union employees with purportedly limited and narrowly defined duties; except that nobody at Speedy Rent-a-Car had a written job description.  An obvious oversight in the Speedy training program for drivers;  and needless featherbedding by union types who wanted strict job classification but never bothered with writing up a job description for various workgroups.

As for other training programs at Speedy Rent-a-Car in Pawtucket….what training programs? Speedy indeed did have some training of the OJT (on-the-job training) variety, but never had regular trainers in any workgroup. Thus the OJT lessons were good when some thorough people conducted the training, but had relatively poor results when reluctant or disinterested trainers were given the task. A standard checklist would have sufficed, so that key points in car preparation; maintenance services; and interaction with customers would be covered by anyone who performed a task that was not normally their responsibility.  Such a concept is called cross-training and is fairly common in many industries. But at Speedy Rent-a-Car in Pawtucket, Wisconsin, there was no cross-training and no checklists of what it takes to present an acceptable product to the customer. Neither was there a written job description that should have been part of the application for a job; in any category whatsoever, except for the job of sales agent. For them, there was a thick book of rules, procedures, and expectations required of sales agents; but none for other workgroups.  If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then at Speedy a few of the weakest links in the chain were the ones upstream. Although sales agents had a thick book of guidelines, they normally did not see the cars they were renting. Thus, quality control was out of their hands.

The story of how Speedy Rent-a-Car was organized and run in Pawtucket, Wisconsin pertains only to what the Footloose Forester himself saw as an employee during the years he was a driver there.  He was in daily contact with all the workgroups as a full-time employee, thus was able to assess and to report on what he saw. Since he prided himself on doing the best job he could and still stand apart from those who were less concerned or even uncaring about the circumstances, he knew he might have to act independently.

The Footloose Forester wanted to have a training program that would enable everyone around him to perform whatever services were expected of them, in the pursuit of maintaining high standards of service.  He at first posed the idea of a training program verbally to one manager after another, but never got beyond the first rung in the ladder known as the chain of command. Higher management never showed any interest in having a program of cross-training, or any training beyond what was already mandated by Corporate Headquarters. Subsequently, he began to put suggestions on paper and hand them over to the managers. One of the suggestions in a staff meeting was to first install a suggestion box at Speedy. Our franchise did not have a suggestion box at that time.  

After a suggestion box was installed, following his suggestion at the staff meeting, the Footloose Forester occasionally put typed suggestions into the box.  He put more suggestions into that box than all of the other employees combined.  But he does not recall any of the suggestions being acted on.  Once or twice he checked in the box to see if the suggestion he had inserted the previous week had been taken out. Sometimes it was, and sometimes not…for up to a month.  It was a game of cat and mouse.  Management didn’t really take him or his suggestions seriously. That is why the contentious title of this chronicle is, “Who Manages The Managers – Part II?”  

The Footloose Forester kept a computer archive at home with documents that he had already addressed to Speedy Rent-a-Car.  He did all his homework at home, on his own computer, so the files belong to him. The copies of the correspondence went to the manager's inbox, on a fairly regular basis. His file contained about 75 documents.

Rather than receive praise for making positive contributions toward making Speedy Rent-a-Car more competitive; or improving upon the quality of car preparation, or maintaining customer satisfaction; most of the time the Footloose Forester was resented by management for being a thorn in the side, and by his co-workers for suggesting more work for them and prodding them to pay greater attention to pleasing the customers. For all those reasons, they also resented him. He had experienced resentment before; in other places and for other reasons, so he was prepared to deal with their collective attitudes.  Of course, anyone reading this would be justified in thinking that this chronicled account is self-serving and is far-fetched. But there are others who believe that more thought should be invested in pleasing the customer.

According to P.T. Black, a consumer strategist in Shanghai, "If you don't consider your customer as the reason for doing things, you're in trouble when building a brand." Ref. Time Magazine 18 Nov. 2013.  Black also noted that Chinese management is too fixated on their production and not enough on their customers to make progress on branding. At Speedy, the Footloose Forester saw a similar attitude but had very little support for his views.  He already had a lifetime of meeting such skepticism, so the Footloose Forester will wind up this tale with a few specific examples of why he believes that he was not liked by management or by his fellow employees at Speedy's in Pawtucket.

One of the management lapses that grated on the Footloose Forester was the long delay by the city manager in devising a procedure to deal with cars that displayed expired inspection and/or registration stickers.  As was mentioned before, there was no procedure in place to ensure that every one of the thousands of rental cars that went out was properly registered with a current sticker. Although there was one employee whose job it was to put new tags and inspection stickers on cars when they first arrived at Speedy’s lot; the problem was that some cars that had been in the fleet for several months, and/or were approaching high mileage status, frequently came back from rental with expired stickers; or had already passed the date for the yearly inspection.  Those cars were almost always cleaned and turned around immediately, to be rented out with expired stickers.

The Footloose Forester mentioned the problem to every manager in sight, but nobody offered to correct the situation.  That is, until there was an upgrade, some ten months later, in the job assignment of the person who put plates and registration stickers on the newest cars; to also include all the cars on Speedy’s lot of 1200 or so vehicles. Until that job upgrade took place, the Footloose Forester took it upon himself to do that simple job. He put 690 registration stickers on cars, as needed; by his own running count. Fellow workers complained that the task was not his responsibility, but shift managers never persuaded the city manager to change the procedure until some ten months later. So again, the Footloose Forester has to ask, who manages the managers?      


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