The Ol’ DMV Experience

May 14, 2024

Here’s what I learned at a Christmas party during the holidays last year: everyone has a DMV story.

We were making small talk around our kitchen table and the topic turned to what people were hoping to squeeze in during the holidays. I shared that I had four days left to get my driver’s license renewed, so I had to go to the DMV.

I immediately commanded all the attention. All eyes were on me.

But that only lasted for about 30 seconds because then, everyone had to share their own DMV story. And everyone’s got one. Right?

Anyway, the conversation circled back around to me, and I talked about how the TSA agent at the airport suggested I get the new Real ID that doesn’t have to be renewed for eight years. And I shared that I did my research online to see what I needed to take to the DMV—Social Security card, current driver’s license, high school yearbook, vial of plasma, left arm, that sort of thing.

You’d think I was requesting classified next-gen weapons specs.

One by one, the people around my table began to voice a strong conviction that I would never show up with everything I needed. And even if I did manage to scrape together everything the DMV required, it would be a horrible experience one way or the other.

Anyway, I went. And I’m even more convinced now that the DMV should be reality television. 

I walked in and grabbed a little paper number from the machine. Strewn on the floor at the base of the ticket dispenser are a dozen other numbers, left there in disgust by previous patrons who, seeing their number compared to the one on the screen, gave up immediately.

There’s a long counter with seven different stations. On the wall behind them is the two-digit digital screen, just to the left of the official picture of the president. Seventy chairs sit in four rows, separated by a pair of aisles.

The employees ranged in their demeanor from annoyed to dutiful. None seemed to enjoy their job. There was a running conversation behind the counter with all the employees about things that we on the other side of the counter were not a part of. We were just interrupting their conversation.

Time passes.


Number 53 stands up. He is at least 6’6” and 300 pounds and dressed all in red. Red hat, red coat, red sweater, red shoes. I am not kidding. He was there to pay taxes on some property he had received from his cousin. He had brought not a single piece of paper with him. It was a “No soup for you!” situation. That was an ugly scene! I was nervous for the rent-a-cop sitting in a chair on the opposite wall.

Meanwhile, nearby, the mother of five is stressing out because she’s #79, and she’s running low on Doritos and animal crackers, and only three kids can see the show on her phone at one time.  

To cut to the ending, I won the bet. Sort of. I had everything I needed. Technically, one of the bills I brought with me didn’t work, so I had to go to the county assessor’s desk and get a copy of a tax assessment. But I didn’t have to leave the building. So that feels like I won.

Again, anyone out there who’s looking to produce a new reality film—give me a buzz. I might partner with you.

But as a mentor used to say, “You can learn something good from almost anything.” So, here’s what I learned at the DMV that day.

1. Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

The DMV is designed for slow, for methodical and for bureaucracy. If you have a quick question like “Do I need a new driver’s license if I’m moving from out of state?” you can’t cut to the front. You have to take a number. Accordingly, people avoid the DMV; they mock it, detest it. And it is overwhelmed and bogged down with paperwork.

What about your company or organization? What are the results you want? Would you agree that your company is designed that way?

2. Monopolies are never a good thing.

On some level, there is no alternative to the DMV. You’ve got to get a driver’s license, after all. That lack of competition destroys the motivation to excel. It’s also why just about every DMV gives you the same experience.

But when consumers have a choice, they often exercise it and that shakes up the system. And it’s hard to argue that the people in Needles, California aren’t happy with their choice!

3. The people are the difference makers.

Seth Godin argues that anyone who works for a company (or agency) they don’t own is a brand ambassador. Most organizations, however, make a huge mistake: “They don’t hire brand ambassadors, they hire clerks and bureaucrats.”

I’m sure there are DMVs out there that are killing it—minimal wait times, creative solutions, predictably beautiful ID photos (okay, maybe not that one). What makes the difference? The people. A friendly attendant transforms your DMV experience. And a friendly one who’s also hard-working and creative transforms the whole place. Need I highlight the difference in a great server at a restaurant versus a poor one, or a motivated flight attendant versus a grump?

4. Every work setting can get better, but someone inside has to start the improvement revolution.

Harvard Business Review wrote that “Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate”. It is about individuals changing their behavior, celebrating quick successes, and otherwise shifting culture. Not just declaring a change.

Want to see your organization change? Good news: it can.

Be the person to start that change. Set a higher standard than is required. Wow people with your integrity, attention to detail, creativity, empathy, flexibility, clarity of direction, whatever the situation calls for.

I’d want to visit that particular DMV. That might be the place to build a film.

Cover image: Felix Adamo / The Californian

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