When Life Tests You: My Attempt to Donate a Couch Was Blocked by Bureaucracy


tl;dr: In this post, Mark recounts his frustrating experience attempting to donate a couch, only to be stymied by bureaucratic obstacles. Using this personal anecdote as a case study, he explores how inefficient processes can deter good intentions and inhibit value-add activities. Mark connects this episode to broader Lean principles, highlighting opportunities for systems to improve by reducing waste and enhancing flow.

When you do work related to processes, quality, improvement, and learning from mistakes… the universe has ways of testing you (or playing a prank on me). As I share at the end of the post, I failed that test in one way. A big way.

My wife and I had a 3-piece sectional couch that we've recently replaced, so we were looking to donate the old one to a good cause. It's not the couch pictured below.

Couch to give away

I used an online scheduling tool to set up an 8 am to noon window on a recent Monday, the most convenient window for me. I was also lined up to pay $200 for the convenience of them hauling away our donated item. But, it's for a good cause, and that's fine.

That's not fine is everything that happened next. It was a chance for me to practice what I preach about reacting kindly and constructively after mistakes.

Toward the end of that window, at 11:45, I got an email saying the driver was on the way. OK, better almost late than never.

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At 11:58, I got an email saying the driver had arrived. I had put notes to this effect in the online booking, but we are not in a house; it's a condo building. The notes asked them to come to talk to the front desk security guy, and he would point them to the loading dock so they could come inside to the elevator.

I was waiting on a call from the front desk guy, so I could come down. But at 12:00, there was an email that read, in part,

“We regret to inform you that we had to cancel your scheduled pickup due to unforeseen circumstances.”

Um, what??

I came downstairs and talked to the front desk guy. He said that a truck pulled up in front. But nobody ever came inside. Nobody called me. So they drove off.

This organization has done many pickups from this building, but maybe these drivers haven't been here before. Maybe they're new. Maybe they've only gone to single-family homes. Maybe they weren't trained very well.

I was waiting on a call back from the organization's customer service line when the front desk guy called me at about 1:00 PM, saying that the organization's truck was outside again. So I rushed down.

I said hello to the guys in the truck, saying, “Thanks for coming back, I'm Mark.”

“Are you Jay?”

“No, I'm Mark. I have the couch pickup.”

“No, that's not on our list. Jay. Patio Furniture.”

This was a different truck and a different team than an hour ago.

So as we were sorting that out, my phone rang. It was the organization's customer service line. They were trying to reach “my” truck's driver. To complicate things, I was told, “We are a third party organization” that was contracted to pick up donations for the organization.

Why didn't they come into the lobby to figure out how to take the donation? No good answer.

Now, I returned to talking with the guys who were THERE… with a TRUCK… for a company that accepts DONATIONS.

And I'm there. With a DONATION. Upstairs. Ready to be brought down.

The outcome we all wanted

“Is there any way you can take my donation then? Do you have time?”

“Yeah, but… we called the manager… and we can't take the donation now. You have to call to schedule it.”

So we are all standing there, in complete agreement that they should be able to take it.

“But we're only allowed to do what our boss says.”

Yikes. What a sad situation. A lost opportunity.

The outcome we got

It made me wonder if I still wanted to donate to this organization or find somebody else?

The guys drove off. Without the couch that somebody could undoubtedly use for their, um, “habitat.”

It felt like a scene from The Blue Brothers, where Jake and Elwood Blues offer money to the nun who runs the orphanage. They end up telling her, “Well, I guess you're up shit creek then, aint' ya?”

“What did you say????”

(Now paraphrasing the movie): “I offered a couch to your team to put into their truck as a donation. They refused to accept that couch because of bureaucracy. So then I said, ‘I guess you're up shit creek.'” Except I didn't say that to anybody.

Ok, it wasn't as bad of a situation… or quite as funny. But close.

I got another call at about 1:20 saying that the original crew and truck could come back tomorrow at 8 AM. Not an 8 to 12 window… but in apologizing for the inconvenience, they promise to help out my schedule by making my stop the first.

I hoped it would work out that way.

Sure enough, that next day… nobody ever arrived to pick up the couch. I didn't get contacted. I gave up. And it leaves me, sadly, with bad feelings about this charitable organization that does a lot of great work.

I canceled the donation online. It was, at this point, hilarious to then get an email that asked:

“Did you cancel your donation pickup in error?”

Um, I wasn't the one making errors!!!

Thankfully, the front desk manager for our building offered to help. He hauled away the couch and promised to either donate it on my behalf or to sell it with proceeds to be donated. At least I got that couch out of there!

The Mistake I Made, Though

I debated if I should tell this part of the story. But in the spirit of transparency, reflection, and “we all make mistakes,” I'm going to fill in another detail about my call to the customer service department.

I made a mistake and said something I regretted. Not funny like the Blue Brothers, but mean.

I was frustrated, and that's no excuse. I couldn't understand why the first driver didn't try harder to figure out how to take my donation.

I snapped at the woman on the phone. I'm not proud of this.

“Well, the driver was either too lazy or too dumb to come inside to figure this out.”

I regretted those words immediately. I shouldn't have blamed the individual. I know better, rationally. My emotions got the best of me. Again, that doesn't excuse what I said.

And, rightfully so, the woman on the phone said back to me, “Nobody who works here is lazy or dumb.”

I apologized.

As I wrote earlier, the problems were most likely caused by systemic issues, such as a lack of training, poor procedures, and silos between organizations.

I commit to doing better.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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