White Lines and Whoppers

In 2008, Burger King ran an award-winning ad campaign called “Whopper Freakout.” The premise was
that the chain had decided to permanently discontinue the Whopper and the ads were filled with actual customer reactions at the unexpected news. The following year, news outlets had a field day reporting on a Florida woman who called 911 after a McDonald’s store ran out of Chicken McNuggets and the audio of her three separate 911 calls became a viral sensation.

In both circumstances, the laugh comes from the idea that people would freak out over fast food. What if you showed up and Burger King really had discontinued the Whopper or McDonald’s ran out of McNuggets? Could you sue? Could Ronald or The King be fined for holding out on you?

What if you could still get your Whopper or your McNuggets, but you had to endure a longer than usual wait? Head to McDonalds or Burger King® during the lunch rush and they’re liable to take longer to serve you than they would at 3:00 p.m. Could you sue then? Should they be fined?

The locating business is different from the fast food business (at least in some ways). We’re never, ever allowed to run out of nuggets and we always have to serve our customers within a specified timeframe or we’re subject to civil penalty. In short, if you come in during the lunch rush and we keep you waiting, we’re breaking the law. Across all 50 states, facility owners
and their contract locators are in a race to stay ahead of tight deadlines, especially during periods of peak demand. There’s even a best practice that basically says, “You know this is coming. Figure out a way to deal with it.”

To continue the restaurant analogy, part of the problem is that the locating business is more like a buffet than a fast food restaurant. Our customers can go through the line as often as they want and take all the food they want and it doesn’t change the price they pay. The result is waste. Just like at a buffet, a lot of our work goes into producing a product that essentially ends up in the garbage.  Some-body took it, but didn’t eat it.

White lining is designed to cut down on that waste. It’s the equivalent of taking only what you plan to eat. And, it eases the burden on utility owners and their contract resources by steering their efforts to where they’re really going to be used. The locator who is late marking the job you really need located may be delayed by marking an entire business campus for the placement of a handful of signs, or re-marking that half-mile stretch of right-of-way for the landscape contractor who cancelled the work but not his ticket.

Damage prevention has gotten far more sophisticated and efficient than it once was, but there are some cracks in the foundation. One of them is the rigid expectation that locators must be prepared to handle unlimited volumes on a fixed schedule. For their part, many conscientious excavators are helping out by providing sufficient notice on meet tickets, white lining and being disciplined in how they call in their locates. Maybe it’s time to consider additional relief mechanisms, like an option for excavators to select a 72- or 96-hour completion time when they enter their own tickets online. That would help utility owners and locating contractors better balance their weekly and seasonal workloads. In the meantime, we’ll keep doing our best to get all our work done on time. We take our statutory obligation very seriously… and we hate seeing our customers freak out.

Christopher Koch is a training consultant and President of ZoneOne Locating. He is past president of Nulca and worked on both the 2009 and 2015 revisions to the Nulca Professional Competency Standard. He can be reached by email at Christopherkoch@live.com or on Twitter @kochauthor.

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