Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Week 44 - How Kaizen Can Help Your Business Today

It is very interesting how often business owners exclude their employees from critical conversations regarding the future of the company, or indeed the day to day operations. After all, it is the employees who do most of the work, who have most contact with customers and who have to work to the policies and procedures you have put into place. It makes sense therefore to involve employees in all of these discussions.

Morris Lasky, a US based 40 year veteran of the hospitality industry, has turned around more than a hundred organizations (hotels, stores, factories) in the last 20 years. He was quoted as saying "I'd say that 95 percent of a good bailout campaign comes from the comments of the people who are already there ... [who] know what the problems are, but have never been asked ...”

Japanese companies big and small already know this and it is part of the reason that they have been so successful over the past 30 years. The Japanese call it Kaizen, which is the word for improvement. This is not some hollow word on a mission statement hanging in the lobby of their buildings; this is a deeply ingrained culture of involving the entire group in innovation and striving for constant improvement. Granted to Japanese economy continues to see some very tough times but the quality of the products they produce certainly continue to change the world. What they do is “raise the bar” which thankfully for consumers means companies all around the world are forced to reconsider their quality standards as well as what could be considered as standard features.

The key aspect of Kaizen is that it is an on-going, never ending improvement process. The search for new methods and means of achieving a given result never ends and the focus is on small improvements, day after day, month after month.

The most interesting aspect of Kaizen is that it involves everyone in an organization. Employees at every level are actively encouraged to participate through continuous suggestion. These suggestions are reviewed by management and acted upon rapidly if it makes good business sense. For many Japanese companies, the search never ends. There is always something that could be made stronger, faster or more cheaply. There is an old saying: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You can consider Kaizen to be the exact opposite of that statement.

You can borrow these techniques for use in your own business:

• Involve all employees in process improvement discussions
• Value each contribution
• Never accept that some new improvement cannot be found

Flying The Friendly Skies!

I was on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles this morning and a flight attendant handed me the pilot’s business card with a note on the back welcoming me (by name) to the “Friendly Skies”. Despite a long list of things still to fix at United (after a few years in bankruptcy) it is great to see a pilot leading the charge towards a turnaround. This completely random event (no one else seemed to get a card) is what keeps things interesting for customers; I mean when was the last time a pilot made contact with you? Keep it up United!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Marketing Musings: From Oil to Flowers, BP Shows How it is Done

You have all probably all seen the increase in “eco-marketing” by the big oil companies. Chevron’s “Will you join us?” campaign is plastered in nearly as many places as Accenture’s overused images of Tiger Woods. But the Chevron campaign, whilst a great leap forward in positioning on this subject, usually left me feeling flat. Tips on being green and educating me on everything the company is doing doesn’t seem to resonate simply because I don’t get the feeling that anything on the street is actually changing. I always had a nagging feeling, “...step it up Chevron”. After all, they made $5.4B profit last quarter.

Yesterday I stopped at a new BP service station in Los Angeles and whilst I was mostly drawn in by the futuristic design, I could also see that they were trying to portray a new beginning in eco-responsibility. After I started filling the car, I emptied all of the garbage that had accumulated in my rental car; there were several recycling options for the various pieces of garbage, hardly a game changer but good to see. At that moment, a young man in a BP t-shirt approached me and started explaining the station from top to bottom.

After asking me if I was familiar with BP, he went on to explain how solar panels on the roof provided all of the electricity for the station, that the concrete driveway was made with recycled glass and other materials were sustainability obtained. He asked me a few questions to gauge my interest in the subject of being eco-friendly which I thought was engaging and interesting. He saved the coolest thing for last; he handed me a few eco “tip cards” which mention “driving aggressively causes increased fuel usage” and “turning lights off in a empty room helps us all”. I almost declined the cards until he told me that when I was finished with them I should soak them in water overnight and then plant them. Guess what, wildflowers will grow! How cool is that?

I left the station with a feeling that BP’s approach was far more than marketing spin. Not only was it wonderfully responsible, it was entertaining, original and the very definition of my mantra – SAY + LOOK + DO = REPUTATION.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Week 43 - Eliminating "Not My Job" Syndrome

Most business owners want to get the best from their employees. Often they struggle in vain to influence the employee’s attitudes hoping that suddenly they will feel a new sense of responsibility. Bluntly, the first place to look for a solution is in the mirror. You have to be the embodiment of what you expect from your employees. Here again perceptions play a key role – how do your employees perceive your commitment to the business? Do they believe you want the best for the business and them, or do they think you only care about yourself?

Enough about you - what about the type of people you have hired? I once heard someone say “I always try to pick happy and bright people with common sense”. “The cash register”, the person stated, “is easy to teach. It is much harder to teach an unhappy person how to be happy!” I couldn’t agree more and obviously this will differ from industry to industry, but you should seriously consider adding it to your list of hiring criteria next time you have a vacancy. A major side benefit should again be increased sales. People buy from people they like! Sounds simple because it is, we buy from people we can relate to and feel comfortable with. If your employees are not happy and capable of building these relationships your sales are almost certainly suffering as a result.

When employees are made to feel valued through regular training and inclusion, and further, they are empowered so they can be made accountable, you should be 90% of the way to creating a environment for positive attitudes to flourish. The word individual means “having no like or equal” and this gives you a further hint about how you can get want you want from your employees. Yes every business has a purpose, but the employees are individuals, all are working there for different reasons. Try to tap into exactly what each individual is looking for. If you can help them to achieve their goals whilst getting what you want, it makes for an extremely positive environment.

In their book Fish, authors Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen point out that it does not matter what type of business you are in, enjoyment is a choice you and your employees have. Fish uses the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle USA as a metaphor. How can you get more uninviting than a cold, wet smelly fish market? The authors present the keys to the employees enjoying the environment and turning up to work each day:

  1. Choose Your Attitude – Who do we want to be while we work? The choice of being unhappy or otherwise is yours to make each time you walk through the door.

  2. Play – Have fun at work, fun creates energy.

  3. Make Their Day – Involve your customers in your fun, go the extra mile, create an experience.

  4. Be Present – For the benefit of both customers and co-workers.
Take time out and ask “how could this work for my business?”

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Week 42 - Don't Fall at the Last Hurdle

Incorrect perceptions are one thing to deal with but it is far more difficult to recover when your staff have mistreated a customer or offered less than perfect service. Many large and successful companies today openly state that their employees are the number one priority, ahead of customers. This makes sense when you think about it. How can you treat your employees as a second or third priority and then expect them to offer the best possible service to your customers?

The old chestnut that the customer is always right is wrong. As a business owner, you can kick and scream and abuse your customers and put up offensive signs like “no refunds” or you can attack the problem another way. As I have already explained, consistency is a key element in your customer service plan so whether you are good or bad, at least be consistent. Consistent, systematic and friendly customer service can turn almost any business owner into a success yet so often we see business owners making an effort in only one or two of these areas. The real key (just like your approach to marketing) is to get four key areas right, no exceptions:
  1. The outward facing policies in your business
  2. The attitudes of your employees
  3. The business systems that support your employees work
  4. Gaining respect and understanding (your attitude as the owner)

Let’s look at the first area, your outward facing policies (our rules for engaging the customer) – the other three areas will be covered over the following weeks.

The customer service experience obviously begins when somebody walks into or calls your business. At this point there are already certain rules and regulations you have in place for dealing with the customers and these can be presented in a number of different ways. What you should be striving for in this area is making doing business with you easy, appealing and even fun! Doing the bare minimum is unlikely to thrill your customers. For example, when you go to the supermarket and the cashier asks “how are you?” Do you feel good about that? Not really, because you expect them to ask that, just as you expect them to be courteous and offer an efficient service.

Providing unexpected services is awesome customer service. Doing what every one else does is simply expected and therefore does not have any real impact on your customers.

Before you shoot down this suggestion by saying that extra services cost your business money – consider this; providing awesome customer service and maintaining the profitability of your business is a balancing act. However, when performed in conjunction with the other techniques I have described, you should be able to charge more for your product or service. Some department stores are famous for going the extra mile; often they are not obligated to refund your money, but many do. They realize that the time spent arguing damages the relationship with the customer so they simply move on!

Don’t put up offensive signs, don’t argue with customers about your obligations and make it easy for them to spend money – “No Credit Cards” is not what I would call an inviting sign for potential customers.

Remember, your outward facing policies will create perceptions about your business, sometimes without you even knowing. Make sure your policies are not turning off potential customers.