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How an Uber Driver Error-Proofs Frequent Travelers

March 01, 2019

My recent travels have given me the opportunity to converse with many Uber drivers. These chats typically start with a few casual questions: "How long have you been driving?" "Do you like it?" "Where should I go for dinner?" Most riders might stop there, but if I detect their engagement in the conversation, I bring a little Dr. Deming into the mix. Drivers linked up with ride‐sharing services are a treasure trove of operations data who, as independent contractors, have developed their own revenue‐maximizing heuristics. They know which office park they should wait in at 3 p.m., when to stop driving at night, and — my favorite — the number of cars in the airport queue that signals it's not worth waiting around.

On a recent business trip, my driver stopped me as I was exiting the vehicle and asked me a question I hadn't heard before: "Can you show me your phone?" A little stunned and very confused, I pulled my phone from my purse and flashed it, then asked him why he made the request. His reply: "I've been asking people to do that for two years, and I haven't had a single phone left in my car since then." My driver had developed his own standard work! I was on the cusp of launching into a speech on how wonderful it was that he had developed his own checklist to reduce defects before they happened, but I flashed back to my children's vacant stares during lectures on milk runs in front of the dishwasher and just wished him a good night.

This lean‐thinking Uber driver got me thinking about the problem he helped me avoid. Uber has a fleet of 3 million drivers worldwide with an estimated 15 million rides a day, leaving a lot of opportunity for failure. And sure enough, a passenger's phone is the No. 1 item that gets left in an Uber. Our phone has become such an extension of ourselves that losing it is no minor inconvenience. I once saw a man at the airport smash the window of the rental car he had just returned in order to get his phone out of the locked vehicle. At 5:30 a.m., with no agents around and a flight departing with or without him, there was no way he was leaving it behind.

As stressful as the experience of losing a phone can be, the good news is that ride‐sharing services have processes that help passengers quickly reclaim them. But what my driver did was build a checklist into his process so the phone isn't left behind in the first place. The process of contacting the company and connecting with your driver works after the failure — and the driver makes $15 for getting your phone back to you. But that comes at the cost of your time and your blood pressure.

The checklist hit the spotlight as a critical tool to prevent failure and reduce waste when Dr. Atul Gawande published "The Checklist" in The New Yorker in 2007 (he turned the article into a book two years later). I had the chance to reflect on Dr. Gawande's piece recently with a class in the Master of Human Resource Management program at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business and I was stunned at how, more than a decade later, it's still a wonderful way to engage people in the "why" of change management. Both Dr. Gawande and my driver, in their own ways, were able to articulate a simple truth: Life is coming at you quickly, so slow down and get it right the first time.

Peg Pennington