Small Efforts for Big Wins

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This morning, I paid a visit to the American Citizen Services department of a US Embassy, for passport-related services. Anyone who has been there knows that this is not exactly an efficient experience.

  • You need to make a reservation online in advance
  • The security makes TSA look like a luxury hotel: no bags, no backpacks, no phones, no earphones, no Kindles, no food, no drink. You only are allowed your documents, wallet, keys and printed material.
  • There are no screens showing the line or how long you will wait (hint: a lot). When your time comes, they announce your name and which window to approach over a loudspeaker.
  • Children's TV on a large-screen; Bob the Builder can be torture after long enough!

The net result is dozens of people in a waiting room with no phones, no ability to work, nothing to do to pass the time, and no way to know how long it will be... or even if they accidentally skipped your turn.

I am amazed so many people actually wait patiently.

As a consultant, I could think of many ways that the entire process could be run better. Customers (yes, they are customers and should be treated as such) would spend far less time in there and the government would spend far less as well. But as an independent consultant, I am not going to spend 6-12 months to get on the GSA vendor list and then try and convince people with no understanding of why it is bad or concern how to make it better, let alone that they should.

However, I have found consistently that the consular officers - diplomatic staff who validate the documents, check that you are who you say you are, tell you to sign, and are the only ones authorized to approve the passport - often are intelligent, friendly, helpful people who wish things could run better.

Thus, our consular officer, upon hearing that the wait was rather long and unpredictable, told us that they are looking into some form of a numbering system. The Embassy, however, functions as part of the US Government, meaning the proposal, approval and acquisition process is "somewhat" drawn-out.

Since she seemed amenable to making things better, I made a simple suggestion: each time someone calls a name, add the time of their appointment. Instead of, "John Smith, window 2," call out, "John Smith, 10:15, window 2."

This instantly notifies every other person waiting:

  1. What appointment they are up to.
  2. A rough estimate of how much longer until their appointment.
  3. Knowledge of whether or not their appointment was skipped by accident.

This tiny change would cost the embassy nothing - requiring no central approvals or purchasing process - but actually speed up processing as fewer people interrupt to ask, "what are we up to," or "I think someone might have skipped me?" Most importantly, though. it improves the customer experience significantly.

Obviously, the best thing to do is make the entire process better. If it takes 10 minutes to do the passport application process, then better to spend 10-20 minutes rather than 90 minutes inside the office. But if you cannot change it that quickly, at least make it easier for your customers by giving them information, which leads to comfort.


It always is best to provide optimal service to your customers. When you cannot do what you want, due to labour constraints, financial limits, or simply a bureaucratic process, look for small wins that make a big difference. They always exist, if you know how and where to look for them.

What area of your business needs process improvements but cannot afford the major investments? Have you found the small, low-cost changes that have a big impact? Ask us.