Common Sense, Negotiation & Process Re-engineering

When I ran Micrographics (the area that provided photocopies of items posted to a customer’s account, mostly checks), we had a smaller group of people that primarily worked off-hours concentrating on fulfilling Subpoena requests.

Often times, Citi would be subpoenaed by the IRS or the courts (on behalf of an attorney) to provide “lots & lots” of check photocopies…more often than not, “everything on the account for the past X years”!

A lawyer handing a divorce for the wife would often “demand” photocopies of EVERY single check written by the husband over a certain period.

Or a business was being audited by the IRS & we were required to provide copies of EVERY single paid check.

One single case could easily require hundreds & hundreds of hours worth of manpower.

(Back in the mid-‘90s, producing a check photocopy was a very manually-intensive process, especially with regard to these “blanket requests”, e.g., every check on this acct from x/x/xx to y/y/yy.

Our clerks would have to locate the item in questions on the system…one by one…find its corresponding “batchtrack number”, a unique identifier assigned to every transaction that posts to a customers account.

Then, using the posting date & the batchtrack #, search through the indices of ~75-100 reels of microfilm that contained ALL of Citibank’s posted checks for that day…in no particular order!)

Contrary to popular opinion, Citi did NOT store all check images (be it on microfilm or a different electronic medium), for the same account, in the same place.

A central repository, by customer or account or any another criterion, simply did not exist!

75-100 reels of microfilm PER DAY & in no special order!

You couldn’t press a button & automatically pull up “all of Johnny’s checks”. In fact, if you wanted copies of each one of the 20 checks that Johnny wrote just last month (remember, customers wrote MANY checks back 20-25 years ago as compared to today’s digital transaction world), I can almost guarantee you that the clerk would hafta (yeah, I know it’s “have to”) pull 20 different reels of microfilm for the 20 different checks.

200 checks over the past year for the same account? Probably 200 different reels of microfilm!

2 checks posted to the same account on the same day? Probably a 1.3% probability that they’re on the same reel of microfilm.

(And locating, retrieving & printing a copy of a posted item required that the reel of microfilm be manually inserted into a special Kodak reader/printer!

God forbid if someone else in the unit happened to be using that same exact reel! Reels were constantly being pulled from the racks by clerks to fill a container holding ~20 reels (which the operators worked through to fulfill their assigned items), while other reels were being returned to their EXACT rightful place on these enormous sliding file racks!)

Now you have a better idea of how manual a process it was to fulfill a single subpoena!

Enormously manually-intensive!!!

There were several subpoenas cases we had where each subpoena request fill up 3-4 BOXES FULL OF PHOTOCOPIES!!! That’s thousands & thousands of photos…for a single request!

All I would see is the staffing 💰💰💰 fly right out the window…even though we had no windows to the outside world in our area!

In talking with Michele Lopez (Unit Manager) & her staff, all I would hear is “But, Mike, this is what the subpoena clearly reads…and we’re required to fulfill the request completely!”

Nonsense, I always thought.

There’s always a loophole, a side door, another way around! (This is where “pure common sense” really came into play!)

If I’m representing Mary Jane in her divorce action against her estranged husband, Mark, do I really need, or even want, to see EVERY check that Mark wrote???

The $10 check to pay the paper boy?

The $43.12 phone bill check?

Really? Every one???

I started to instruct my people to first take a look at exactly how many checks the subpoena request covered: pull all the applicable statements, count the # of checks paid & separate that amount in “checks < $100” & “checks >= $100”.

Then look to see if Citi was being paid ($6 per copy) for these photocopies by the requester (usually, the attorney).

The IRS never paid for their stuff.

“If we were NOT being paid, then I want you to get on the phone, be it with the IRS agent or the attorney who requested the photocopies, to see if they’ll agree with just accepting those photocopies for checks $100 & over.”

Not surprisingly so (at least not to me, but a total shock to my Subpoema Compliance Unit staff), many of them agreed to only accept copies of the larger-amount checks!

That was great!

We were able to significantly reduce our workload without negatively impacting Citi’s fee revenue (since we weren’t getting paid anyway).

And even when the requestor was paying $6 a copy, if the request was so absurdly large (to the point of tying up several staff members for weeks), we would contact the attorney, explain the possible financial impact on them (considering that in most cases, the great majority of checks were less than $100) & see if they were OK with only getting photocopies of the higher-amount checks (and also pay a significantly-less fee to us).

This new upfront “negotiation process” worked extremely well!

Almost like magic, the backload of subpoena cases sitting in inventory (that I inherited & continued to grow early on in my tenure as Micrographics Director) began to dwindle.


(Each subpoena case came with a targeted completion date & the unit had been regularly missing these deadlines on a way-too-frequent basis. When I first got to the place, they had HUNDREDS OF CASES in backlog & they would regularly fail the timeliness indicator.)

But now, we were able to get ALL our cases completed within the required timeframe & completely cleared out the entire inventory!

We were able to react much more quickly on any emergency requests we received & the volume of complaints we received from the branches, attorneys & the IRS completely disappeared!

This whole story really underscores the importance of working SMART(LY) & not just HARD.

Oh, there was no doubt that we were working hard…no doubt whatsoever!

In fact, I often moved existing Subpoena inventory from the evening Subpoena Unit to the daytime Micrographics Unit to make sure that we used every possible minute of available manpower in the entire area.

But it wasn’t until we started negotiating with the requesters (and really using basic common sense) that we were able to make some real progress & gain some headway into our mounting inventory situation.

Until all past-due inventory disappeared.

And we also started using a similar upfront philosophy/practice with the everyday (“non-Subpoena”) Micrographics requests that called for at least a month’s worth or more of check photocopies.

If the customer was paying for the copies, we actually performed a nice service for him by letting him know exactly how much his request was going to cost.

“Do you really want to pay $1,500 for all of the 250 check photocopies? If you would accept only copies of those checks $100 or greater, it would only cost you $240 for those 40 checks!”

Most times, this made great sense to the customer.

One “sticky situation” that we’d often face is when the request covered hundreds of paid checks…but the $6 per check fee was being waived! The customer would pay -0- so there really wouldn’t be a lot of incentive for them to reduce our workload any.

(If the request came through CitiPhone, we would often question the manager as to why their rep waived the fee. “BTW, no, I don’t believe that the customer hasn’t been receiving his statements for the last year! Call him back & let him know about the $6 fee PER ITEM and now let’s see which photocopies he really needs!”

And if it was the branch that waived the fee (for which they would do REGULARLY, especially for their Business accounts…

…I would insist that my people call the branch…drop my name…and negotiate with them, often times, with the Branch Manager himself/herself.

“You do know that you’re waiving over $1,500 in fee revenue that would normally hit your bottom line!”


“Our VP, Mike LoRusso, believes that it may be the customer’s fault on why he can’t locate his past 3 statements now. That customer really should be charged $6/copy!”

Either way, we would often hear about how “valuable” the customer was to the branch’s profitability.)

If we could reduce the size of the request to “only those checks >$X”, then we’d settle for that!

Then, if the branch still wanted the fee waived, we’d move in with “the final offer”…

“If the branch would agree to pay only $1/copy (instead of the standard $6/item fee & instead of the customer paying) and send that payment directly to us, then we’d be able to cover the appropriate operating costs & not charge the customer!”

Most branches would agree to either speak with the customer (to “reconsider” the request or perhaps, reduce it to checks $X & over) or accept our offer & pay us directly at the much-reduced rate of $1/copy (vs. the standard $6/copy that customers were charged).

Either way, we’d often come out ahead…earning the full $6/copy revenue for Citi (the branch), or significantly reducing the volume of work needed, or making some revenue for the Micrographics Unit.

BTW, here’s how I came up with the discount price of $1/copy for the branches…

The cost of an employee would average ~$40,000 annually (salary + fringe benefits). At 2,080 paid hrs/yr, that’s about $20/hour.

Conservatively speaking, handling these large requests manually would often result in a 20 items completed/hour productivity rate.

20 items/hr @ $20/hr = $1/item.

Not only were we able to greatly reduce the number & size of these “large photocopy requests” (that would often “clog up” our smoothly-operating production line), but in those cases where the branches paid us $1/copy, we were able to book those “revenue monies” into a sub-ledger account.

(A “sub-ledger account” is a temporary holding spot for items that eventually will be charged to a customer’s account, booked as an expense against the business, booked as a revenue or booked as a loss.)

But since we were a back-office shop, we were unable to “turn those funds into” revenue…as a rule, we only incurred expenses.

And since it was a “positive” (revenue), “booking it as an expense” didn’t make “financial sense”.

And it certainly wasn’t a potential loss.

What to do with this found revenue?


*thinks…for about a second or two*

We could turn it into a “contra-expense” (the opposite of an expense). Since we couldn’t call it revenue because of the nature of our business, we could apply it against our operating expenses as a “negative, or contra, expense”.

That would lower (improve) our expenses by the amount of the fee revenue.

(Years previous to this, I would receive a $1 rebate for every checkbook order produced by our vendor. This would amount to a very tidy sum by the end of the year, especially when you consider that customers would reorder checks, on average, once every 14 months.

Yes, millions.

We would use these millions to help offset other expenses already incurred by the business. Instead of being grouped along with other revenue, they served to effectively lower our incredibly tightly-managed “other operating expenses”, all expenses except manpower!)

In addition, we could “book some expenses” (pay for stuff) using the funds sitting in that sub-ledger account.

Like a BBQ we held for our entire staff (complete with a bunch of filet mignon that I got on sale from Whole Foods @ $2 per 6-ounce steak & tons of other goodies) one beautiful summer afternoon during an extended lunch hour. Turned out to be one of the very best employee appreciation events we ever held & went a very long way toward improving our working & interpersonal relationships…and, naturally, employee satisfaction.

Instead of having to absorb that expense directly ourselves, we’d use some of this “fee revenue”.

(For all those amateur & professional CPAs out there, I did receive prior permission from our Finance partners.

And again, I’ll remind you, the statute of limitations ran out years ago in case you wanna see how I’d look in an orange jumpsuit! 🤪)

Or purchasing needed decorations, refreshments & food/snacks during the various holidays during the year.

All in all, with a little common sense & some shrewd negotiating skills, we were in a MUCH better position to mitigate the potential impact of these enormous photocopy requests in both our Subpoena Processing Unit & “regular” Micrographics Unit…

…resulting in a much-more manageable workflow & overall improved quality…

…with no deterioration whatsoever to the service provided to non-Citibank entities (outside attorneys, IRS), resulting in increased satisfaction with a much-quicker turnaround time…

…and enhanced employee satisfaction by reducing the number & size of these “monstrous requests” & taking opportunities afforded by improved productivity to offer more training classes, employee-education opportunities & staff “fun events”…

…continually meeting/surpassing every official performance standard for timeliness, quality & customer satisfaction for every single month…

…and being able to come in “under budget” during every fiscal period, despite assuming the additional workload from Consumer Credit (performed by 4 FTE/Full-Time Equivalents in St. Louis) without ANY additional funding or manpower whatsoever!!!

Some other technological & processing re-engineering enhancements (developed using Lean Six Sigma philosophies & principles) increased our productivity rate by almost 100% (from 14.3 items/paid hr to 28 items/paid hr!!!) & greatly improved our timeliness performance as the average resolution timeframe dropped from from 2+ days (the standard was 95% of all requests received had to be completed within 3 business days) to less than 1 business day!!!

Most days, we were sending out completed photocopy requests in the afternoon THAT WE RECEIVED THAT VERY SAME MORNING!

Take a step back at look at the functions your business is currently handing.

What major roadblocks, or “choke points”, exist in your operations?

When do you feel barraged by volume or handcuffed by difficult-to-execute processes?

Are you consistently failing to meet standard with any of your formal performance indicators (timeliness, quality, productivity, employee utilization, customer satisfaction, operating losses, turnover, etc.)? Is there any opportunity to increase production resources or offload volume without incurring additional expenses or deteriorating service delivery? Can things be done differently (in different order, by different people, in an assembly-line process by having all prep work automated or handled differently, etc.) to cut down on “waiting times” that employees incur as they wait for a prior step in the process to be completed?

If you have a Process Re-engineering area in your company (or whatever name they may use…Six Sigma, Work Engineering, Learn to Work Smarter experts, whatever), by all means, invite them into your shop to  take a fresh look at your operation.

BTW, if you currently work for USAA, pls look up & contact my good buddy, Jeff Karl, as he’s a certified expert in this field! Last time we spoke, he was still involved with process re-engineering efforts & teaching these principles to the line managers.

He’s a GREAT guy, an incredible person & we worked together at Nationwide Financial in Columbus, OH for a couple of years…as we both continually banged our heads against the wall, trying to figure out how the hell our company/division was still in business. They were 25 years behind the times…so unbelievably resistant to change…and exhibited -0- sense of urgency for a place losing 10% of their “assets under management” as well as a chunk of market share.

Every single year!!!

“But we’re a mutual!!”

Oh, I know, but you’re a terrible mutual!!!


You’ll be pleasantly surprised (shocked?) how things will start becoming crystal-clear & where opportunities (to improve timeliness, quality, rework rates, etc.) may exist where you least imagined.

You’ll start to see drastic improvements in both effectiveness & efficiency if you just sit down and take a long, hard look at your operation, often with engineering experts by your side.

Good luck!


And, as always, thank you so much for listening yet again.

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