Larry was the owner-manager of a very successful laundry.  It specialised in hotel and restaurant linen.  Every day, including weekends, a fleet of vans set off on their respective rounds delivering large wicker baskets of clean linen and collecting the dirty linen.  On the whole the drivers had good, friendly relationships with the staff they dealt with at the various hotels and restaurants.  The drivers would frequently stop to enjoy a chat over a cup of tea and a cigarette.

Larry couldn’t believe his luck.  He had bought the laundry as an ailing business five years previously and had worked hard to build it up into a profitable operation.  He had invested in new equipment and engaged a marketing agency to promote the laundry’s services.  In fact, Larry was quite an entrepreneur.  He had left school at 16 with no worthwhile qualifications and worked in a variety of dead-end jobs.  He had joined the laundry as a foreman and watched it go into decline as the owner became increasingly frail and dispirited after a stroke.  Larry took the initiative and struck an advantageous deal with the owner – a sort of tapered management buyout – who remained a significant shareholder after he retired.

Having rescued the laundry and put it on a sure footing, Larry made a serious mistake.  The van drivers were unionised and during protracted negotiations Larry agreed to a ‘finish and go’ scheme in return for no increase in wages.  At the time this seemed like a good idea.  It was popular with the men (to whom it gave an opportunity to obtain second jobs) and should help to reduce overheads. The alternative had been to agree to a generous wage increase.

After the new arrangement had been put in place, all went well for a few weeks.  Or rather it didn’t, but it was too early for Larry to notice.  The first signs of a problem were when the assistant manager from one of the laundry’s best customers, a prestigious hotel, telephoned Larry to complain that the driver had been rude to the housekeeper.  Apparently, the driver arrived early and the laundry hadn’t been ready for collection. Instead of sitting down for his usual chat, the driver had been abusive and a full-blown row had ensued.

This was the start of an alarming trend as similar complaints about the drivers’ rudeness began arriving in Larry’s office.

As if this wasn’t enough, another consequence of the ‘finish and go’ arrangement gradually became evident; the vehicle accident rate went up.  Nothing too serious, just minor knocks and scrapes, but the repair bill from the garage that maintained the fleet of vehicles rapidly doubled, then tripled.

The magnitude of his mistake slowly dawned on Larry.  As the complaints poured in, and as some lucrative contracts were cancelled, he realised for the first time that his drivers were the laundry’s ambassadors.  They were the key point of contact with his customers and the relationship between them was vital to the success of the business.  The ‘finish and go’ scheme was jeopardising a critical relationship with those who mattered most – the laundry’s customers.

Larry opened negotiations with the van drivers’ union in a desperate bid to reverse the mistake.  A wise union rep, over a beer one evening, told Larry that he was the victim of unintended consequences.

‘Seen it all before’, he said.  ‘The trick is to ask yourself ‘in how many ways could this go wrong?’ before you take action.  Bloody sight better than finding out afterwards.’


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