Every year around this time, my travel picks up. It’s a busy time of rushing to airports, eating in fast food joints, and scrambling to keep work and life in balance. I don’t know how people did it before you could Skype with the family for free, run your entire office from 30,000 feet, and do practically anything from your smartphone. Technology certainly makes life easier — except when it doesn’t. In the last month alone, I’ve seen several epic technology failures that not only fail to make life easier, but they actually confuse what should be a simple act and make life more difficult. The following epic technology failures offer governments a lesson in IT investment.

  • The Soda Machine of the Future: I remember flipping burgers as a teenager and having to pour drinks from behind the counter. Particularly fun was when a school bus pulled into the parking lot and you needed to pour upwards of 80 sodas for a very impatient crowd of thirsty junior high kids. I rejoiced when they moved the machine into the lobby area. No more pouring, no more refills, no more “can you do half Dr Pepper and half Diet Pepsi” requests. It was brilliant. The latest evolution in soda pouring, though, is not so brilliant. Have you seen the new so-called “soda machines of the future” that look a lot like an iPad in a cube? Every one of these I’ve seen has had a long line led by someone in front looking confused as to where to put their cup and how to get a Diet Sprite. I have to admit, the various levels of selection screens aren’t as intuitive as the “push lever in, soda comes out” method that we’ve all grown accustomed too. If you haven’t seen these, prepare to be embarrassed when you can’t tell if you’re using a touch screen or simply touching the advertisement. The future of soda pouring: 12-person-long lines with the average time to get a soda growing exponentially. See how long these teens tie up the machine, and they know how to use it! (video rated PG for language)
  • Not-So-“Smart” Trash Talk: The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the best-rated U.S. airports for business travelers, missed the mark on one thing: garbage cans. The time-tested methods of dropping trash into a hole or pushing a flap have become passé in Atlanta. In addition to having a sensor that now opens the flap for you, their new garbage cans also talk to you (when they’re working properly). Last week during a layover, I was sitting across from a can whose flap refused to flip. I watched as four fellow travelers waved at the sensor once or twice, figured it was broken, and left their garbage on top of it. Then I saw one physically push the flap and it appeared to have plenty of room inside. Apparently when you get used to the flap opening, you turn into one of those folks who get stuck on an escalator. It becomes an epic fail when the technology keeps us from doing what we need to do.
  • Destination Elevators: Now, I am an educated person. I even figured out the future soda machine in well under 3 minutes. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out these new destination dispatch elevators I see popping up at large hotels. There was a time when you hit up or down, an elevator came and picked you up, and you headed to your floor. This video makes it look easy and modern, but notice what they don’t have with them? Fifty conference attendees wanting different floors. When you start piling in multiple people per ride, the whole thing seems to break down as people select floors and miss their assigned cars start to hop on any car expecting to correct the mistake from the inside. It is a nightmare. One could say this is all learning curve, and once we learn this new way, the old way will seem so foolish. I’d argue that my daughter has been able to get us to our floor since she was 2. For technology that took the intuitive and made it so complex this 40 year old had to read the direction poster three times to get it means this was an epic fail.
  • Automatic Toilet Paper: I think we can all agree that some bathroom innovations, such as the automatic flush and sensor-driven paper towel dispensers, are genius (when working correctly). But the automatic toilet paper dispensers have gone a step too far. When the machine fails to share a square, something has gone wrong.

All these technology failures in the world we live in remind me of an even bigger technology failure. It’s a little less specific and a little less personal. But it’s probably the greatest day-to-day failure that I see in governments: tracking software. Any software designed to track the work we do is an epic failure, and here are three reasons why:

1. Why do we want to know where work is? Because it’s not where we would like it. We want to know where our package is because when it hasn’t been delivered, we want to see it has at least been moving. Why do we want to know where our permit application is? Our tax return? Our benefits? Same reason. When we don’t have the end product, we want to see work is going on. We allow this tracking to become the focus of our improvement efforts, failing to recognize that if we went faster, no one would have to track the work. Tracking systems, like the new soda machine of the future are actually counterproductive to speed as the time to enter work and look at report about the work take away from time needed to do the work. Lots of buttons, cool screens, slower soda.

2. What happened to the work? “I gave it to them.” “We never got it.” “Who has it now?” The inevitable effect of handoffs is the missing piece. Even the best Olympic runners drop the baton sometimes, and when it happens, the blame game begins. Tracking software is designed to show us who really had the baton last and where it should be, but it fails to address the real issue: too many handoffs. If we reduce the handoffs, we reduce the dropped batons. If we reduce the drops, we increase the speed. If we increase the speed, see reason 1.

3. We have to hold people accountable. Tracking systems, with built-in performance measures and alerts when work is late, have been touted as accountability tools that managers can use to find the root causes of their performance problems. But it’s not always that easy. Take call centers. A call center may have a tracking system for call volume and call times. When call times go up, more people are likely waiting in the queue, which likely increases wait times and the number of dropped calls. Keeping call times short is key, so we track it. But do you know who doesn’t care about call times? The people calling in. They’re just happy they got through. Holding the call center staff accountable to something they have little or no control over is a disaster waiting to happen. I can get real good at cutting conversations short at the three-minute mark, but what if the caller is reporting child abuse? Or if the person on the line is just going to have to call in again for another three-minute session? The capacity and process should dictate the time — tracking systems should not.

A better use of government’s technology investments is to find ways to do the work faster. That’s what technology is for. When we apply the cosmic IT knowledge to the wrong areas, we get these missteps that actually hurt more than they help. It’s a shame too, because they aren’t cheap and they can be a drain on your IT resources. Before embarking on your next innovative journey, ask yourself: Is this a better way to dispense soda or just a new way?

*Originally published as Epic Technology Failures (Public Great @ Governing.com, February 22, 2013)

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