Rather than sweep, eliminate the source of dirt

During the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent conference‘s “fireside chat” with Jeff Bezos, he told a story about during a professional development session where he (like all senior Amazon management) spent two days on the Amazon customer service call center staff.

Stop for just a minute.

If your business is small – you likely spend time on customer service, even if not by choice.

Depending on the size of your business, you’re might be insulated from your customer service people and likely from your customers. While it isn’t something you want to do every day, I assure you the value of doing what Amazon senior management does here is sizable.

Listen to the quality

I’ve sat within earshot of my customer service staff. You learn a lot about your quality. Sometimes you learn things about your quality that runs a chill up your spine – but that’s better than not knowing.

That’s what Bezos learned.

During the session, he handled calls and operated the customer support system while being coached through the process by an experienced Amazon customer service person as each customer called in.

While this had to be hugely educational for him about unmet needs and/or streamlining processes for his customer service team, he learned a unexpected lesson – how things really work when it comes to product quality at Amazon, which gave him an idea to improve quality and do so before the cost of low quality grew.

Listen to Bezos describe the result – how Amazon now handles poor products, poor packaging and enables their staff to communicate quality information (and make decisions) about them – much like Toyota’s assembly line allows anyone to “pull the cord” to stop the line to deal with a defect (2 minutes, 47 seconds from 18:01 to 20:48):

 

Can your sales/service people pull a poorly-made or poorly-packaged product off the sales floor? How long will you sell a lame product or perhaps worse – a good product delivered poorly – to your “valued customers”?

How would this impact your buying process and related contracts? How would this impact your product quality and delivery feedback processes? Note Bezos’ use of the un-word “systematize” – not just making more work, but making a new system to make the work and customer experience better.

If you don’t do these things (in your own way, of course), are you willing to deal with the disadvantage this creates between your business and businesses that handle this as Amazon does? What else could you do rather than this to assure the same level of highly-consistent quality of products and packaging?

Remember, this isn’t about replicating what Amazon does. The important thing is to replicate or improve upon the results.

Doing the right work

While discussing a week-long Kaizen (quality) professional development training session, Bezos talks about a Japanese consultant who chastised him for sweeping up some dust on the warehouse floor (1 minute, 54 seconds from 20:49 to 22:43):

 

Eliminating the source of dirt is more important than finding a better janitor or a better broom. Obvious, once you think about it.

Smart businesses regularly do something new and different in their market, producing really good results.

I don’t mean not-so-thoughtful act of cloning a service or a product. I’m talking about the processes and systems that a strong business depends on and eventually turns to as a strategic advantage. Might be a sales or marketing process, might be front or back office.

Once the value is shown, even of a non-obvious system/process, why wouldn’t these things be duplicated by business B when they see business A gaining value from them?

  • Sometimes the new system/process was intentionally designed to be complex so that it would be hard for competitors to duplicate.
  • Sometimes those complexities don’t impact a small local business but a parallel business need for a similar system still exists in that business that should be considered.
  • Sometimes we have this odd tendency to watch someone do something great and stop right there because it’s so easy to assume that we can’t do what others have done.
  • Sometimes the lead isn’t followed because of ingrained beliefs like “Yes, but that’ll never work here.”

What’s your reason? What system would transform your business front office? What would transform the back office? These things don’t have to be massive or expensive. As one of my mentors says, “Little hinges swing big doors.”