Jun 11 2013
Copy things that work. Do not invent, or improve, or innovate. Choose one of the dysfunctional things that surround us, see what other people are doing with it that is working, and just do the same thing. The business community calls this “learning from best practices”. Sensible people just call it common sense.
Yesterday I learned a new one. The reader might think this is trivial, and stop reading as soon as (s)he figures out what it is. But I think it is non-trivial enough that I am taking the time to write about it. It is emblematic of how Portugal shoots itself in the foot… how the country is paralyzed in a world full of motion. I include the description of an empirical model that works, and that avoids the problem described. The solution does not come from innovation – it comes from history – which should make it even easier.
HERE’S A PROBLEM
At home we’re doing repairs on the terrace, so my wife and I (hereinafter, W&I) decided to return the three empty pluma butane bottles that had accumulated there and get the deposit money back – about 60 euros by my reckoning. One of these we had obtained from a nearby Pingo Doce supermarket, and the others from a GALP station. The Pingo Doce was closer, so we took all three there. This is what happened:
Pingo Doce Customer Service Person (PDCSP): “Do you have the receipt?”
W&I: “No.” (This seemed very predictable to us… even natural, considering, why would we?)
PDCSP: “Well then, how do we know you got them here?”
W&I: “What does that matter?”
PDCSP: “If you can’t prove that you got them here, we won’t take them. Maybe you got them somewhere else.”
W&I: “Maybe we did! So what? They belong to GALP – not to you, not to us. They go back to GALP.”
…about ten minutes and a store manager later…
PDCSP: “Without your receipt, you bought them. They’re yours.”
Feeling really dissatisfied with this, W&I took the plumas to the GALP station.
GALP Station Sales Person (GSSP): “Without your receipt, how do we know that you bought them?”
W&I: “We didn’t buy them. We put down a returnable deposit on them.”
GSSP: “How do we know that?”
W&I: “Because we have them! Here they are!”
GSSP: “I’ll give you five euros each.”
W&I: “But we put down a lot more than that.”
GSSP: “Five euros – best I can do.
W&I: “If we get a pluma from you right now, how much will the deposit be?”
GSSP: “Thirty euros… plus the fuel, of course.”
W&I: “You demand thirty euros “deposit”, but you’ll only give us five euros back?”
GSSP: “No receipt, that’s it… my last offer”
So W&I still have “our” plumas, and we have no idea what to do with them. GALP would probably like to get them back, but how? All of this reminds us once again of a recurring tragedy that plagues Portugal and dooms its hopes for convergence with Europe if we don’t change it. ELSEWHERE (often): simple, logical, functional, satisfying… the users benefit. PORTUGAL (always, it seems): complicated, opaque, dysfunctional, frustrating… the users write blogs and foreigners point at us as an example of what not to be.
Why is it like this? It doesn’t have to be this way. Really, it doesn’t. Please consider the following nostalgia. You might even be surprised by the learning opportunities it reveals.
HERE’S SOMETHING THAT WORKS
When I was a boy, every beverage bottle made of glass (Coke, beer, whatever) had a five-cents deposit attached at the point-of-sale. This deposit ultimately reverted to the manufacturer – not the retailer or supplier. In other words, the Coke bottle belonged to the Coca-Cola Company and the consumer just “rented” the bottle, which was to be returned to its owner and then the deposit refunded, with the retailer acting as the manufacturer’s agent. So far this sounds a lot like the “pluma-Pingo Doce-GALP” triad as I understand it, but that’s where the similarity ends. In those youthful days there was no “you have to buy another Coke” or “show us the receipt for that Coke” or any nonsense at all. Walk into a store with an empty bottle… walk out with five cents. Simple as that.
My friends and I collected discarded bottles on the roadside, took them to any retail store and got a dollar for 20… five dollars for 100… sometimes this was for charity or the scouts – sometimes for us, and the streets got cleaned up in the process. We were reclaiming someone else’s deposit money, in fact – someone who just didn’t care about five cents. We did care, and we – like most people – also took the bottles we had obtained in the store, and got our own deposit money back. No one asked for a receipt and all bottles were worth the same five cents – in instant cash – anywhere.
SUMMARY: Someone put down a five-cent deposit somewhere, and someone (the same or a different person) traded that bottle back and got that five cents – from any retailer, anywhere. Simple, logical, functional, satisfying.
My friends and I benefitted, the community was cleaner, Coca-Cola got its bottles back, and while we were at the store returning the bottles we used that money to buy candy right there in that store. Win-win-win-win. No losers.
DO WHAT WORKS, NOT WHAT DOESN’T WORK
GALP, Pingo Doce, and all suppliers, I speak now to you. Why should a pluma be any different from a Coke bottle?
The GSSP (above) mentioned that different suppliers charge different deposits. What is that? That’s madness. That system is broken. You could fix it. The deposit on all plumas should be the same – anywhere. How can that not be obvious? The GSSP bargained with me like a camel trader! That is broken. You should fix it, and you can. What do you gain by not fixing it?
The PDCSP (and the manager) looked at W&I with genuine incomprehension. They truly could not even imagine that any other sort of deposit system was even possible. Of course the Coke bottle or pluma has to go back to the very same retailer that sold it! How else could the system work? They actually said this to us even as the system failed to work right in front of their eyes. Broken! It should be fixed, and you have the power to do it.
Please. Fix things that are broken. Copy things that work. The world moves. Portugal is paralyzed – by choice – and cannot even copy this simple returnable deposit thing without complicating it and ruining it. It’s not even necessary much of the time (certainly not in this case) to invent anything new. Please do not innovate! Just copy something that works! Is there something wrong with that?
GALP… how can you choose dysfunction over function? Does that make sense? Whose side are you on?
Pingo Doce… are you actually content with a paralytic system that ensures failure? Whose side are you on?
Simplify. Copy. Fix. Start.