The Truth shall set you free!

About 20 or so years ago, the Investigations Unit here at the U.S. Citibanking Center in San Antonio suffered a terrible disaster.

They had a locally-designed/built/maintained LAN (Local Area Network) that coordinated & helped manage its complete inventory of investigation & research requests, submitted by both customers & our extensive branch network.

It was originally built in-house by an extremely-talented group of USCC programmers, using rather-new technology & programming language.

The LAN/Local Area Network-based application would download over 5,000 requests daily from the mainframe, then handle the work assignments, tracking, different files access, letter writing, timeliness performance & report production, allowing the unit to consistently meet its timeliness standard (95% of all items completed within 3 business days). BTW, this timeliness standard was the toughest & tightest in the entire financial services industry!

As it turned out, the system totally crashed one day.

Instead of having all their work automatically sorted, categorized & tracked from beginning to end, the Investigations Unit was left trying to paddle…upstream, no less…with no oars!!!

Investigation requests now had to be manually downloaded & individually printed. These sheets of papers were then distributed to the investigators to complete.

There was no mechanism to measure volume, control workflow or even inquire as to the status of an individual item.

Resolution letters were no longer available for viewing by the front-line staff (Customer Service & the 1000+ branches) & their hands were basically tied in trying to help customers who previously had Investigations submitted on their behalf. There was limited information available to the direct customer-contact troops.

Duplicate & triplicate requests were regularly being submitted. And on the back end, often times, more than one investigator were working on the “same item” for the customer.

A couple of years prior, in a somewhat short-sighted cost-cutting initiative, the team of programmers who wrote the code to build & maintain the system was disbanded. The people themselves either left Citi altogether or moved to other Citi businesses in different parts of the country.

Responsibility for maintaining the LAN was transferred to the main Systems & Technology group back in NY.

But this group, as talented & adept as they were, were like fish out of water with this home-grown system. They didn’t write the code themselves so trying to “fix it” was an (almost-)insurmountable task!

All the King’s horses & all the King’s men could NOT put ol’ Humpty Dumpty back together again.

And as time passed, the problem itself, and the negative impact it was having on our customers, as well as on Customer Service & the branches, just kept getting worse.

Not only was productivity within Investigations suffering as manual work-around processes replaced many functions automatically handled by the LAN previously, but more & more duplicate requests kept coming in. If you couldn’t tell a customer what was happening to their original request (Was it lost? Still being worked? etc.), people were simply entering another investigation into the system.

Normally, with an average daily volume of 5,000 items & a timeliness standard to complete 95% of them within 3 business days, the business normally kept a rolling inventory of ~10,000 items. That’s, at most, 2 days’ worth of volume.

It was now a few MONTHS after the systems crash & estimates placed the inventory at around 60,000-70,000…2 weeks’ worth!!! And no one really knew what percentage of these were actually duplicate & triplicate requests!

And to compound the whole issue even further, there was really no official communication that came out of USCC Senior Management. (Notice how I did not say “Senior Leadership”…)

People in the branches were not formally informed what was happening nor told about the massive efforts undertaken to remedy the situation.

In addition to Systems & Technology working hard to find a solution, tons & tons of overtime was being put in by a thinly-stretched Investigations staff. In addition, other USCC units were lending them resources to help meet the incredible demand.

Customers were giving absolute hell to both Customer Service as well as the branches. And the employees found themselves helpless in remedying the customers’ dilemmas!

Just drop another request into the growing Black Hole.

Customer complaint letters were flooding the executive offices.

(Note: During this time, I was in a different USCC business & not directly involved with either Investigations nor this issue.

I was already underwater with my own responsibilities as I also represented the USCC on numerous projects & initiatives.

I did, however, make a few unsolicited recommendations & created a bunch of new CWS/CitiPhone WorkStation notes that helped our initial points of contact be better informed as to the status of pending Investigations items.

But I was never requested to formally help, though I did do whatever I could.)

The branch people got pretty tired of being yelled at by their customers & they did not hesitate to take that message upstairs to their superiors.

The entire Retail Bank was in an uproar…yet our powers-that-be remained pretty much silent.

And then the proverbial shit hit the fan!

Bill Mullins, SVP (who was in charge of all US branch operations as well as the USCC) basically called the USCC Chairman, Ken Villano, in on the carpet.

Bill never saw eye-to-eye with Ken when they were peers and now, as his boss, he was prepared to rip Ken a new one!

Bill was having a meeting with the NY Area Managers (about 40 very-powerful Citibankers who each had responsibility for a small cluster of branches in the greater NY metropolitan area) the following Friday & he invited Ken up to be skewere, er, speak to the group & address this specific issue.

I knew nothing about this meeting at the time, but then…

I get a call from Ken’s secretary on Wednesday…yes, just 2 days before the meeting.

He’d like to speak with me.

He asks me to attend this meeting in NY in his place. He gave me some bullshit excuse about not being able to go (I thought I saw a brown stain on his pants…and they were on fire, too!). Mind you, I had not been working on this issue nor was I a member of the Investigations management team.

I thought it was a pretty-strange request & while I was actually somewhat pissed, I wholeheartedly agreed to represent the USCC.

Upon leaving his office, I stopped in the men’s room to look in the mirror.

No, I didn’t have “FOOL” written across my forehead.

But I couldn’t quite tell if I had actually worn my sacrificial lamb costume to work that day.

Oh, well, if no one has the balls to stand up & face the music, I didn’t have a major problem doing that!

Besides, I always had one ally by my side at all times…THE TRUTH!

I’ve often been described by many, including my daughter, as “brutally honest”. I’m proud of that moniker!

And while I may not recommend the “brutally” part to everyone, you MUST always be truthful…with yourself, your people, your boss, your peers, your customers!

And, when necessary, the judge, too.

But there was also another bullet that I had in my holster.

Another arrow in my quiver.

Before migrating the Retirement Plan Services Operation business down to San Antonio in 1993, I worked for 15 years back in NY in Regional, then, National, Operations. I interfaced constantly with the Retail Bank (the branches).

In fact, while Bill Mullins was Operations Manager for the Long Island Branches, I ran CitiPhone & the Branch Service Station for that region. I sent my managers & senior reps to every one of his branches to train them on Citismart, the mainframe application used to serve customer account, provide information & house different service utilities.

And I also developed an excellent reputation as an Operations & Customer Service expert & the foremost customer champion with almost all of these Area Directors!

I felt very comfortable around this group.

And, again, I was packing the TRUTH.

I was scheduled to be the first speaker after lunch, followed by 2 other presenters (and Bill’s no-visitors-allowed session with the Area Directors) before the meeting would adjourn for the day.

I joined them for lunch & was able to say hello to a lot of good ol’ friends.

Now it was time for the planned execution.


Bill introduced me to the group & I was so happy to hear a bunch of “Hi, Mike!” & “How are you doin’, buddy?”.

I felt completely at ease.

And then I started.

I first explained why they’re seeing me instead of another senior member of the USCC management team.

Then I said, “Look, most of you know me & are pretty l familiar with my style.

“I didn’t come here to bullshit you. You’re gonna get the truth…the whole, unadulterated truth, as ugly as it may be…as that’s the only way I know how to do things!”

I explained exactly what happened & what was being done by the USCC & Systems to fix the problem. I sincerely apologized for the poor treatment their branches & customers received & most especially, for the seemingly-apparent communications blackout.

I told them how very embarrassed I was at the way the USCC handled the issue…”it appears that they’re way more interested in looking good than actually doing good!”

I admitted that I was not directly involved in either the rescue efforts (only to a minimal degree) nor the shenanigans that took place.

I apologized again & promised that I would push the right people to start doing the right things.

Physically, if necessary.

I then opened the floor for questions.

But, first, they actually stood up & applauded.

I was blown away!

I handled a few questions from the group.

Bill interrupted & said that we had already gone past the allotted time & that there were still 2 other speakers scheduled to present.

But a chorus of “Noooo!” arose from the group.

“I’d be happy to address any questions or issues they have, Bill! Not a problem at all!”

He relented, so we went on.

For a total of another 2 hours!!!

And when Bill finally insisted that we get to the last part of his meeting (he had already sent the other 2 speakers away as he knew they weren’t going to be able to get on), I took my final question.

Then I thanked them profusely for the chance to speak with them.

They said a lot of really-nice stuff to me & again, stood & applauded.

(This is banking. They don’t do this…normally. And these were incredibly-important people!)

I was on such a high that I was contemplating just floating back to San Antonio instead of taking my flight out of La Guardia Airport.

You just gotta be truthful…that’s the bottom line.

People aren’t stupid & will see right through your nonsense if you don’t.

Let honesty guide you. Perhaps I went a little too far (about turning the USCC in for its lack of openness & candor), but that’s the price you pay when you try to set me up to face your executioner’s bullets!

The truth shall set you free.

And “Thank YOU so much!” for not falling asleep!

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