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I recently shopped at my favorite bargain store and needed to use the bathroom. I groaned inwardly because I know this chain has terrible restrooms. Nature’s call was urgent, and the checkout line was long, so I decided to chance it.  What awaited me was the filthiest first world bathroom I had ever encountered.

Tiles were missing, and a steady leak from the toilet had caused a feces-fed mildew to form at the edge of the grout. Behind the toilet was an improvised heroin cooker made from a soda can. The wall was stained with poop, blood, and a variety of other bodily fluids that belonged in our sewage treatment plant. Lying in a heap near the sink is the broken frame of a vanity much like the one for sale just outside the door.

I am sad to say that despite the horrific antechamber of squalor and its many dire warnings to the contrary, I still had to evacuate or otherwise steal some Depends from the gerontology aisle, so I braved the brown stream that led to the water closet.  The seat was “smeared” with a dry mixture of medical waste, and there were no “ass gaskets.”  Inside me, a demon churned and gurgled to be set free.

Cursing the store and the corporate ghouls who had slashed restroom budgets, I lifted the seat to reveal a somewhat cleaner surface beneath.  I wiped it down with the one-ply sandpaper provided and perched on the cold porcelain to finish my business.

As I exited the restroom, I saw a fifth generation xerox of a restroom log, with one indecipherable signature and a date 6 months prior.

How did such a small piece of hell come into existence?

I have an MBA, so let’s go over the chain of events thus far from a business perspective.

1. A well meaning but fearfully misguided consultant comes up with a brilliant plan to cut costs and pass on savings to customers: lay off the janitorial crew and motivate the employees to take charge of the restroom.

2. A limited budget is granted, allowing the managers to pull inventory off the shelves and stock the bathrooms with soaps, furnish with floor inventory, and all they need to do is check the bathroom throughout the day and clean as needed.

3. It works…for about a week until the first serious bathroom boo-boo happens.  Suddenly, the enthusiasm is lost, and the cashiers announce to the manager “I’m sorry, but you don’t pay me enough to do this kind of work.”  The manager is left to fend for herself.

4. The manager asks for permission to hire a company to come clean up the mess and she is told sternly that this is not in the budget.

5. The manager agrees with her employees, and they leave the bathroom alone for six months.

6. A customer has irritable bowel and has no choice but to subject himself to the sorrow and squalor of the unisex cesspool.

Suddenly, I understood what my mother meant when she said “someone needs to write a letter.”  Of course back then we were dirt poor and could not really afford to waste time and money on composing and mailing a letter…but now we are in the internet age.

Here is where I think there may be a generation gap.  A millennial would go directly to social media and let their complaint fall on the eyes and minds of their social circle…but I’m old school.  I went to the website and persistently dug into their corporate “About Us” page until I found the holy grail, the feedback form.

I did not attack the store, I went straight for upper management, because I know the problem lies with them.  I explained my experience to them in colorful, restrained language.  I also gave my theory as to what was the root cause.  I stressed that this was not the only bathroom of its kind, and the store should not be held accountable for a sinister corporate scheme that backfired all over the customer.

And that was it.  I directed my frustration at the people who needed most to hear it, and asked the Universe to take care of the rest.

Flash forward to today, when I finally got off of my overweight ass and decided to finally get around to starting my blog.  As I was trying to decide where to begin, my phone rang, with a local number I did not recognize – which I always find exciting.

Hello?

Hello, is this Mr. (mispronounces my name)?

Yes it is.

Hello sir, I am Playa del Toro, the store manager for the [store name] on Sepulveda Boulevard, how are you today?

(Let’s pause to point out that I am no fan of confrontation, and my first instinct was to make static noises and hang up, but there was something in the tone of her voice that led me to believe I should see this call through.)

Hi Playa, I’ll bet you’re calling about my comment.

Yes I am.  I am so sorry you had such a bad experience in my store.

(This was touching because her tone was not false – she sincerely meant it.)

Me too, I love shopping there, and I wish there was something you could do about the bathroom situation.

Well, that’s why I am calling…to thank you.

(Disbelief) Really?

Yes, because of your letter, I was able to persuade corporate to let us hire a weekly deep cleaning crew, and we have a budget to replace the tile as well.

…We continued our pleasantries and I hung up the phone, suddenly realizing what my blog is going to be about.  This is a blog about persistently pursuing improvement in the world.  The store is a great store, and it deserves to be a fully welcoming place to its customers.  I took a small but focused action as a customer, not even as an employee, and I created the change I want to see.

Now let’s go out into the world and become agents for positive change.  Let’s improve things in tiny ways everywhere we go.  Pick up a cigarette butt that isn’t yours and toss it in the trash.  Thank someone for doing a good job who probably never hears it. And if you need inspiration, come back and read on.

I have been in the process improvement field for years and years, so I have a wealth of stories to share…so if nothing happens this week, there’s always twenty years worth of work experience to share.  Thank you, dear reader.  You will become the change you want to see.

If I get a chance, I will go back and take a picture of the new bathroom.

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