Quality management’s slow ROI

We talk about numbers, metrics, & dashboards from time to time. One of the more difficult things to measure, much less manage, is quality.

Is there a single measure?

Some might suggest Net Promoter Score as an ideal single measure. NPS ranges from -100 to 100. It represents the willingness of a company’s customers to recommend their products & services to others.

If your business makes / sells cars, what single measure indicates your overall quality? Number of recalls per model year? Number of cars returned under lemon laws? Annual average cost of warranty repairs? Repeat sales?

Quality management is difficult

What makes it so hard to manage & measure quality?

Cost: Quality management systems are expensive, at least they feel that way. If you manufacture things (including software), the investment necessary to measure & report quality can easily approach the cost of producing the product. Finding the ROI is difficult at best, while the price sticks out of your P&L like an ingrown toenail.

Time: Quality control isn’t easy, fast, or simple. Measuring & reporting quality either during or immediately after the manufacturing process is a complex, incrementally-built thing. It takes time to build. If your team’s culture is focused on speed above all else, quality management may not make your “projects to implement” list.

Quarterly expectations: Time-to-return-on-investment compounds the difficulty. Quality control feels like an expensive, plodding animal, making it easy to view as an extravagance rather than an investment.

Accountability: Quality measurement can feel like blame creation, rather than data collection. Accountability must extend beyond the head/hands of the worker to the team’s management, systems, and to the training & tools provided to that worker. Quality work is accountable by design, and rarely happens by accident. It’s resilient, running for days or weeks at a time without stopping. It’s ready for the edge cases that try to inject chaos into your customers’ world. Customers appreciate when the products they buy can take a punch.

Culture: Quality isn’t a job. It’s a value. If your team sees it as an incumbent part of their job, it will change their work, how they work, & how they think about their work. If someone doesn’t see quality as part of their job, they may need training. If training fails, they may fit in better elsewhere. People who value quality don’t want to work with those who don’t value it. Who would you rather lose?

Every job is a quality job

Years ago, a leadership instructor moped into the room after a break & started droning on in monotone. He sounded like he was having the worst day of his life. After a few minutes, he took a break. When he returned, his mood was positive & very happy to be there – despite being in the same room with the same people.

He stopped for a minute & asked if anyone wanted the old, depressing guy to return. No one did. His lesson from that little act was that “Every job is a sales job.” If you’ve ever been “greeted” by a sullen receptionist, the meaning of “every job is a sales job” is obvious.

The point? Every job is also a quality management job.

Like the sullen receptionist, it only takes one person, event or action to make us forget the good work a business has done. Similarly, when one department’s role in quality management fails, it devalues the work of the rest of the company.

Quality management systems help us monitor & correct these things before they cause reputation damage.

Forests, forest fires, and reputation

In a world dominated by short term views, quality management’s slow ROI & difficult to identify returns seem too expensive & time-consuming to invest in. Even for those who invest, a ROI search in their accounting system comes up empty.

As a result, a bad financial period makes it easy to cut what seems like an extravagance that isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

Think twice.

Quality & reputation can be both sturdy & fragile, like a forest. It takes decades to grow a healthy forest. Reputations grow similarly.

Like a random lightning strike, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire can destroy a decades-old forest in hours, a change in quality that goes undetected can cause reputation damage that takes months or years to recover.

Does your business have months or years of staying power? In a pinch, you can borrow to bridge a short-term cash flow gap.

You can’t borrow reputation.

Earning Return Business, part three

In the last year, we’ve experienced the joy of moving. Twice.

Yes, twice on purpose.

Apparently our lives are in such dire need of adventure that one move wasn’t enough.

Census you asked

Why do I bring up these moves?

According to U.S. Census data from 2010, Americans move about 12 times in their lives – and younger generations are trending toward moving even more often.

Moving is not an inexpensive or easy affair. It can stress families heavily at a time when they are already under substantial pressure. Since we do it about a dozen times in our lives, it would seem obvious that there’s lots of incentive to create an experience that encourages repeat business and good word of mouth.

Let’s talk about a few examples.

U-Haul vs. Penske

I’ve rented from Penske once, 16 years ago. I had to drive their truck from Missoula to Cheyenne to return it. In retrospect, this was not the most time and cost efficient plan, but a prior U-Haul experience had me avoiding them.

Despite the crazy return location, I’d rent from them again tomorrow – if they had a local store in the places I was moving from and moving to. Why? 16 years later, I still have good vibes from that move, the rig I received and how they handled the process on both ends.

I’ve since used U-Haul twice. As they were 16 years ago, the trucks are spartan in features, still use gas (less power, lower mileage) rather than diesel and often give you the idea that you’re the last person to drive it before they sell it off.

I’ve used them twice is because they were the only local choice at both ends of a move.

Confidence earns repeat business

Despite my issues with their trucks, the people who work for U-Haul  (and their dealers) have proven to be friendly and service-oriented.

As with many other large businesses, there are roses and thorns with each experience, and once in a while you’re fortunate to meet unique people who set the standard for everyone else you deal with in a particular market, such as Hungry Horse Montana’s Kasey Faulk and her crew.

The thorns usually relate to little issues that point to management’s attention to detail. A recent example is the truck I picked up. The windshield appeared that it hadn’t been cleaned. It was covered with bugs.

Thing is, the bugs weren’t whole like someone hadn’t touched the windshield at all. Instead, it looked like they’d been “sort of” cleaned but hadn’t finished the job.  I suspect U-Haul has someone clean the windshields in every truck at check-in time (or before it goes out), but that they don’t have their people hop in the truck to check their work when the cleaning is done or when the truck is rented.

Yes, these are little things

Little things. Trivial things. But they make you wonder about the attention paid to other little things, like oil, lube, u-joints and wheel bearings.

You see, after you’ve paid a crew to load a truck, the last thing you want to do is find yourself stranded in the middle of Eden on a broiling hot day in the sun.

Actually, that’s the next to last thing you want.

The last thing you want is to have to unload the truck and load your stuff onto its replacement – particularly if it was loaded by a crew as good as Kasey’s. You don’t really want to do that even if it wasn’t loaded by her crew.

Fortunately this wasn’t part of our experience and there was no mechanical issue on either trip, despite the ill-cared-for appearance of the rig.

Earning return business requires creating the right memories

While nothing went wrong for us, these kinds of things are on your clients’ minds when they ponder coming back to you.

  • Have they cleaned the truck / bedspread / bathrooms since the last time I was here?
  • Am I going to have to deal with grease on this and that and that again?
  • Will the tub be dirty again?
  • Will they track in dirt and not clean up the sawdust and drywall dust again?
  • Is that guy behind the counter going to ogle my daughter again?

If these are the memories you’re creating, how likely is it that they’ll return?

Depend on being the best game in town, not the only one.

Perfect is the enemy of done – or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA celebrated the one year anniversary of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars.

As someone who has been taking pictures since the ’60s, I still find it amazing that we can tell a satellite orbiting Mars to take a picture of a Jeep-size spacecraft parachuting to its landing 62 million miles away and have the photo on my laptop 20 minutes later.

The photos and video of the landing and all that led up to that event reminds me of the oft-quoted remark “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

Does it need to be “perfect”?

While shipping something and iterating its benefits, features and quality are perfectly acceptable strategies for many products and services, I think we shortchange ourselves if we don’t keep in mind that there’s a time and a place for “better than done”.

I was trained by engineering professors during my college days, so “perfect” means something well beyond “done” to me, often well beyond four decimal places.

Perfection is extremely difficult to achieve and even harder to prove , so let’s settle on a “Much better than where it is now” definition so we can keep the engineers happy.

Using that definition, perfect makes no sense for most work under most circumstances. For example, software programs are never “perfect” and while you can always sand a surface with a finer grit of sandpaper, does it matter if you take an 800-grit-smooth surface to where 10000 grit will smooth it?

Perhaps a better question is this: Is the cost and time investment worth going past “good enough/done” to reach for those “perfect” four, nine or 27 decimal places?

Going beyond a seemingly ridiculous number of decimal places is one reason why Curiosity made it to Mars and still rumbles across the Red Planet today – yet it’s unlikely that Curiosity is perfect.

BUT… it is extremely well-designed and resilient.

Design and Resilience

My point is this: while perfect is certainly the enemy of done for much of the work that you and I deliver, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put serious thought into the design and resilience of our best products and services – if not all of them.

It’s not unusual for us to design something based on immediate and short-term needs, never taking the time to consider what happens if it encounters situations and customers our short-term design never considered.

The information we don’t have is often as important as what we know and assume at design time.

When you send a product like Curiosity to Mars, you don’t get an opportunity to replace a part you didn’t think through as well as you should have. You can’t make a service call or throw a tarp over it while you rip it apart to figure out how to resolve today’s problem.

Instead, your design time process has to include what *could* happen and how your product would react and extract itself from an unexpected situation….long before you load it onto a rocket, pallet, download page or Fedex box.

What if your product…

  • Finds itself being used by a customer 10 times bigger than your design-time’s “Ideal Customer”? Or 10 times smaller?
  • Is being used in an unfriendly environment? A high-security or low-security situation?
  • Lasts 10 years longer than you expected? Remember – the work or result it provides still reflects on your business.
  • Cost 250% more to replace once it’s installed – and that installation takes 253 days  (the time it took for Curiosity to reach Mars).

When Curiosity lifts off, it was too late to turn a screw, change a part’s materials, or sand and polish it to an even-higher tolerance fit.

Think about your best stuff – no matter what you do. What would happen to it under the conditions described above? Would it be worth more if it handled those things without breaking a sweat?

How would you react when that extra bit of design effort pays off? What revenue will result? What will that first few seconds of success feel like?

PS: The sum of *all* NASA spending over the last 50 years is $800 billion. Lots of money. Yet that 50 years of exploration and discovery were cheaper than the government bailout of Wall Street, which cost $850 billion. A stunning comparison of ROI, even before thinking about the spin-off technologies from NASA’s work that have trickled down to business and industry, much less the things that impact our daily lives.

Can you find the quality in this kitchen? It isn’t the bacon.

Baconfest Chicago Chef Rose
Photo credit: Chicago Serious Eats

People send me bacon links and/or bacon photos on Facebook almost every day.

I’m not sure what started it. You’d think they see me around town with a fistful of bacon all the time (they don’t, I rarely have any) but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Today, I found my own link about Baconfest Chicago and it’s all business (OK, there is a little bit of bacon too).

Check out the slideshow illustrating how Chef Rose cooks his Baconfest winning dish and look for ways he’s managing the quality of the food his kitchen produces.

Hint: One of my favorite quotes is from Chef Gordon Ramsey: “Without a leader, there are no standards. Without standards, there is no consistency.”

Where do you see Chef Rose managing quality?

The Seeds of Legendary

Pete Townshend - THE WHO
Creative Commons License photo credit: flipkeat

I was reading AJ Leon’s blog this morning and thought that sipping a cuppa joe in Shakespeare’s hometown while gnawing on a “legendary brownie” sounds pretty good.

The term legendary struck me, as AJ probably meant it to. I don’t stumble across things of that quality every day, but I guess that’s the nature of legendary, isn’t it?

It got me to thinking about the products and services that I encounter and which among them are legendary.

Sometimes legendary just sits on the shelf and stares back at you – expecting you to recognize its stature without being told.

The Best Product Wins?

Some businesses act as if they were trained by this unseen, all-knowing old school mentor who believes that the best product wins.

This means that marketing, PR and any effort to become an authority in their market are things that only mediocre products require. The best should sell itself simply because it’s the best.

For that reason, the greatest product or service in the world may serve out its life in anonymous mediocrity.

Think about the businesses you visit regularly. Do any of them do something in a legendary manner? If so and they don’t make a fuss about it, maybe you should mention their amazingness to them and ask “Why the big secret?”

I’d Drive Across Town For…

Which products/services are without peer? Which of them would you drive across town for? Which of them do you seek out or at least think about every time you’re in that part of town, the state or the country? Which product, service or business would you go out of your way to enjoy sharing with a friend?

A few that come to mind:

These things aren’t legendary because what they create is untouchable. Some are quite common, yet they deliver a step (or three) above anyone around them. Some are legendary because their creators form a great memory in the process of delivering them. Some are just incredibly consistent at touching all the bases and doing so in a manner that’s just right. Some are just great.

Being Legendary

Do you see any common behaviors or characteristics of those offering this level of quality? Success leaves clues.

To me, the folks that deliver legendary service offer consistency, little surprises, thoughtful, caring service. Not just nice, but more than you expect. Above and beyond.

More than that, they set expectations by sharing with you that you’re about to experience the extraordinary – and then they deliver that and more. Talk isn’t enough. Delivery is critical.

Muhammad Ali told you in advance, followed up in the ring, and as he stood over you….told you again while canaries circled your groggy head.

While you don’t have to deliver your message like Ali, you also shouldn’t miss the opportunity to better people’s lives in some way by helping them to see that that you have something amazing to offer.

It’s worth the effort, even for a legendary brownie.

Taking Care

One of the lessons my dad impressed on me when I was old enough to begin to “get it” (or so I thought) was “Be a good listener.”

Naturally, the meaning of that phrase changed for me over the years.

  • As a teenager, it had a rather obvious meaning, “Pay attention and you might learn something.”
  • As a college student, the meaning changed a bit, but the fundamentals were the same.
  • As a newly married guy and later as a dad, I fine-tuned it a bit for the roles I found myself in.

Ultimately, it was about listening before speaking or acting. A handy business lesson if there ever was one.

At work, it became far more complex as it became about listening…really listening to customers (including other people’s customers) about the detective work necessary to create and retain customer loyalty, and sometimes, about figuring out what wasn’t being said while the words still flowed.

Sometimes the most important words from a customer are the ones they fail to say.

Despite the complexity that lesson has taken on at times, the core message is still the important one – a message of listening to learn, one of the most valuable lessons my father taught me.

What level of care do you deliver?

My current context for the most personal level of service was set by Hospice of Cumberland County (Tenn.), but the who and what isn’t really the context I’m trying to get at. The level itself is what I want you to arrive at, regardless of what you do.

Consider the level of care that you’d give to a sick family member. It’s likely to always exceed that given during the course of business, but it’s a standard of care that you can consider when designing different levels of service in your business.

A level of care we’re speaking of is very personal. It isn’t suited for just any business and perhaps not for just any customer, but that isn’t my decision to make about your business. Fact is, it might be perfect for a subset of your customers…or perhaps all of them.

As personal as the end of life care you’d provide for a family member? Isn’t that a bit much? Sure it is.

I suggest that because it brings a level of personal touch to what you deliver that you might not ever have considered. While you still might not deliver something that’s of the same class as end of life care for a family member, it might just provoke a thought that transforms your high end business. That which transforms your high end business quite often transforms the rest of it as well.

What level of care have you failed to offer to your clients? Beyond levels of care, what care itself are you failing to deliver to your clientele?

Doing it right

The other lesson I remember most is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” The unspoken second part of that is “That doesn’t mean that you should do less.”

You might wonder if there is a conflict there, but I don’t believe so. Doing the job the best you can, each time, doesn’t mean perfect. It just means best for you given the skills you possess at that time *and* with a commitment to continuous improvement.

Not starting a project (or a piece of work) because the outcome can’t be perfect is far worse than finishing it with your best, yet imperfect effort. What have you not started because you felt you couldn’t deliver perfect?

Oh and the third part…focus. Doing things right requires focus on those things. Doing 100 things poorly serves no one well, least of all you. What efforts are you making to get and stay focused? To deflect, destroy or defer distractions?

The undercurrent

Over the last seven weeks, I had many opportunities to learn while caring for my dad. Whether from him, my mom or their friends, the lessons were almost always about taking care.

Are you truly taking care of your clientele? Is there a level of care that you’ve neglected, ignored or simply failed to design?

Never let a customer settle

Mayflower II with her lifeboats
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

Some customers have enough confidence not to settle for poor treatment by a vendor.

Others solve the problem by deciding never to come back.

If a customer settles for something, it’s because the business they’re dealing with let them do so.

The confusing thing about those businesses is that it takes just as much time to run a poor business as it does a strong one.

Don’t ever let a customer settle.

Hungry?

Photo by Leroy Schulz

My friend Leroy Schulz is a photographer, graphic artist, programmer, green car fanatic and mountain scrambler in Edmonton.

One of the projects he uses to keep the creative juices flowing is his POTD (Photo of the Day).

He takes at least one photo every day, no matter where he is or what’s going on.

A few months ago, he visited a friend of ours and while clowning around with his dogs, took the shot above.

To really get the impact of the photo, click on the version above. It’ll open in a lightbox.

Study their eyes

Are you working hard enough to get your customers to get that look when discussing how you’ll solve their problems?

Are your products THAT compelling?

And do you have their undivided attention?

Check the picture again. Look at those stares.

Some of your customers are probably more enthusiastic than others, like the dog in the background (note the tongue). Do your best customers feel that way about your products/services and customer service?

It’s possible, if you work hard enough.

How would it feel?

How would it feel if your customers were as interested and focused on you as these 3 guys are?

More importantly, how would your customers feel if you were that focused on them?

How many pennies would you sell your reputation for?

My wife’s birthday was this weekend, so as a last bit of her gift, our youngest son and I took her to one of her favorite restaurants in the Valley.

As we sat down and caught up on junior’s just-finished semester at Pacific, the “so, what are you gonna order” discussion starts.

My wife has a favorite entree there – and to my knowledge has never ordered anything else in our many visits to this place over a period of roughly 5 years.

But this time, she asks for something else.

Turns out that the last time we visited, she ordered this item and the creamy sauce was more watery than creamy and just “didn’t seem like it used to”.

My son likes that dish as well, so he ordered it anyway.

Taking Pride

Most of my son’s jobs have been in the fine dining and/or catering business and the chefs he’s worked for are a couple of the finest we have to offer in our area.

His dish arrives and sure enough, he notices things that would have never flown at his employers’ restaurants.

Chipped plates, for example. His arrives with a small handful of chips around the edges of the plate. Both mine and my wife’s have them as well.

He tells us that someone with pride in their work would never serve these entrees on chipped plates (this is a restaurant with entrees from $14-29).

He also notices that the sauce is thinner than usual and not seasoned as it was in the past.

Reflecting ownership

“Something’s changed here”, he notes. “Do they have a new owner?”

I’m not sure of the timeframe but I do recall a change of ownership sometime in the past.

While that may or may not be the instigation of the change in entree quality of this place’s signature dish, it doesn’t really matter because it reflects on the owner, the manager and the head chef.

The chipped plates are a symptom of “Oh, that’s good enough”.

Would you sell your business’ reputation gets sold for the price of a $6 dinner plate? Or .08 worth of garlic, a little black pepper and 4 more minutes on the burner?

How about one less restroom check per day? Or a 25 cents worth of Pine Sol in the mop water?

It happens every day. Don’t let it happen to your business. Don’t teach “good enough” to your employees.

Every little thing sends a message. If nothing else, this is high-value marketing with a low price.

Doing it wrong gives it a high cost and delivers the wrong thing – reputation damage that’s hard to get back.

Little things lend quality to a welcome

Last weekend, we took a trip to Oregon to get our youngest son registered for fall classes at Pacific U.

During the lonnnng drive (it’s about 10 hours each way) from Montana past Portland, a few things about processes brought me back to our talk about QuickBooks and my own process improvement from last week.

What kept tweaking my “slight edge” nerve during the trip was that I was reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for the first time. If you haven’t read it, one of the constants of the book is the impact of quality in one’s life, work, thought, psyche and in fact, quality’s impact on almost everything. I found it a fascinating read and something I really hadn’t expected.

The teachings of the book aside, one thing that stood out during the trip was the difference between my admission at a large state college years ago (too many) and today’s at a small, private university.

Shake and Sign

Each student begins their stay at the U via a personal face-to-face with the University president during new student orientation just before their first semester begins. During this time, the new student shakes hands with the president and signs into a book where all prior students have signed in.

This “shake and sign” event fires psychological triggers relating to commitment, group membership, and the beginning of a process that comes with what likely feels like a personal obligation to a new mentor to complete it. When the student graduates, only then do they sign out – by that time, they’re only leaving campus. The relationship to the school is fully vested by that time.

The process of starting school is transformed. For most, it’s a group event with potentially impersonal “herding” of hundreds (or in my case, thousands) of new freshman through all the processes typical of orientation and starting college.

Turning that into something very personal to each student is simply brilliant.

Personal. Individual. Welcoming. Obligation.

It created an experience like those that Walt Disney focused on: one that you had to tell someone else about.

How do you welcome new customers?