Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Disney Turns a Problem into an Asset

I've written about Disney's customer service leadership in the past. Today I saw a post on the DisneyParks blog about short video games being added to the Space Mountain line. When people think of the worst aspects of theme parts, long lines are near the top of the list. When I go to a Disney park, I find myself disappointed when the lines are too short. There is always so much to see in the line that I can't just rush through the experience.

Disney is so focused on the customer experience that they spend money on making the lines more enjoyable. They take leadership in satisfying their customers. That builds a loyal customer base. That's good for business. Consider the worst aspect of your business, and how you could turn it into an asset.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Crate&Barrel Responds to Product Feedback

I saw a coffee mug at Crate&Barrel on-line that I liked but noticed the review feedback was poor. Negative feedback on a mug struck me as odd, so I took a look. Apparently the glaze would crack in hot water. So, as long as you didn't drink coffee out of it, this was a great coffee mug.

Fortunately, Crate&Barrel added this note:

Good news. We are pleased to report that after listening to your Crate and Barrel review comments for the Latte Mug, we have worked to improve its quality and are now shipping a new better mug. If you have the original Latte Mug and would like to talk to us, please call 800.967.6696. Thank you for taking the time to write a product review. We read each and every one to help us make our products and services the best they can be. Your feedback is important…and appreciated.

Like many companies on-line, Crate&Barrel lets customers leave feedback, even negative feedback. That takes some leadership courage. And Crate&Barrel took the extra step of fixing the problem and responding to the feedback. Leadership in business means building customer satisfaction and maintaining the company's reputation for quality, not just taking the customer's money.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Simple Employee Messages

While GM and Chrysler struggle to succeed despite $17 billion in government bailouts, Ford stands out for building success without putting its hand out. Ford claims it started this process by recognizing the industry problems back in 2006 and acting before the crisis.

In 2006, then-CEO William Clay Ford, Jr. recognized his inability to restructure the struggling business. He took the bold act of replacing himself. He brought in Alan Mulally, who had succeeded in restructuring Boeing through its troubles. I imagine that board members "helped" William Ford with his decision, but Ford was able to act on it where other CEOs fight to the death of their companies.

I'm a strong believer in the value of leaders presenting simple messages to their teams. One of the turnaround techniques that Ford is now using is to spread its simple message in a plastic card that employees carry with their badges.

Many people find such things to be silly management techniques. I see them as powerful leadership tools for focusing the team on a simple goal. In each employee that mocks such efforts, you will find an employee who understands the message on the card. They play another valuable role in solidifying the message: They are the first to call out their leaders when they don't act toward the stated goals. Even such mocking acts can serve the goal by acting as a conscience to keep the leaders on track.

As a leader, you could take your first lesson from Ford by having a simple goal for your teams. Your second lesson from Ford is to not be shy about sharing it until your team thinks you are being silly. Here's wishing success to Ford.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Samoan Survivors Follow thier Leaders

Last night I watched the first episode of Survivor Samoa. The participants broke into two tribes and their first task was to pick a leader for each tribe. They elected leaders with a simple ballot, with the highest vote-getter becoming the tribe leader. At this point in the game, they only had visual first impressions to go on. Up to that point, they were not allowed to talk to each other.

I found it interesting that throughout the rest of the episode, each tribe was happy to take direction from their simply-picked leader. The leader had done nothing to deserve the role, but yet the tribe followed them.

So, what can we learn from this. It would be simple to dismiss this willingness to follow as a tactic for staying under the radar in the game. That probably is part of the dynamic. In my experience, I see people relieved not to have to take on the leadership role. Most people are happy to follow anyone who is willing to take the role, so long as they don't abuse the role.

One good example is when a bunch of friends are planning to go out to dinner together. One person says, "Where should we go," and there is silence. What is that silence? It is a pause while everyone avoids the risk of being the leader in that decision. I know that whatever the first person suggests, someone in the group will shoot down. But, most people would rather just follow the leader's choice. After all, the restaurant is not the important part; going out together is.

I think the Samoan Survivors were willing to follow their leaders because someone was willing to be the leader. You might assume that your teams are willing to follow you until you deserve that they shouldn't. Don't be afraid to take the lead. People will appreciate your willingness, even if they don't say so.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu Reactions are an Abundance of Caution

In watching all the news about Swine Flu, the new catch phrase has become "an abundance of caution." Apparently this is a way to say, "Yes we know we are overreacting, but you can't be too careful when it comes to the little children." We have first hand experience because our own daughter and some friends were sent home from school with flu-like symptoms.

The school administration insisted that they be tested for Swine Flu before coming back. The doctor insisted that they didn't have symptoms to warrant testing, and could go back to school. The doctor's office even called the school to try to calm them down, but to no effect. So here we are with an abundance of caution, asking the doctor to run a wasteful test so our kids can go back to school.

It does seem reasonable to take every precaution to protect the health of our kids, but is it? It is important to keep in mind that every action has a cost. In this case the cost of action is kids missing school, parents missing work, and unnecessary health care. Especially in a time of crisis, our doctors and labs should be focused on the hard work of stopping a pandemic and quickly evaluating truly at-risk people, rather than wasting time assuaging a panic.

In your teams, consider the cost of your risk mitigation actions. It's better to live with some risks than to spend the full cost of an abundance of caution.

Diplomacy is Fun Leadership Training

I just got back from chaperoning a high school trip to Costa Rica. While there, some of the kids put together a make-shift Diplomacy game out of a pizza box top. Playing gave the kids and me fun lessons in leadership and negotiation.

The rules of the game are very simple, but playing well requires players to negotiate alliances. Everyone has to figure out whom to trust and who will stab them in the back.

The simple approach is to make promises to several people and surprise one by breaking your word and attacking them.  Too many lies and no one will work with you, then you lose. I was pleased that our team was able to do very well and never told a lie during a negotiation. I was reminded in this short exercise how effective truth can be in building good relationships. We told the truth even if it was only, "It's not in our interest to support you right now."

I'd recommend trying the game as a fun way to practice negotiation and to try out different approaches to working with people. Its a safe way to see what works best for you.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Richard Anderson on Leadership

Saturday's New York Times has an interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, on his leadership approach.  I liked his answer to what his most important leadership lesson was, "I've learned to be patient and not lose my temper. And the reason that’s important is everything you do is an example ... when you lose your temper, it really squelches debate and sends the wrong signal about how you want your organization to run."

I have to agree.  If as a leader you really want to squelch debate, just come out and squelch it.  "Okay, that's enough debate" can work just fine.   There is no need to kill ideas accidentally.

The interview is worth a read.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to Read a Project Stoplight Report

A project stoplight report is a simple, visual way to show the status of projects.  Green shows the project is good, yellow shows it is in danger, and red shows it as in trouble.  Unfortunately, that doesn't help much beyond giving a summary.  Managers often ask for these reports as a simple way to understand the status of portfolios of projects, and focus on the red and yellow areas.

Project leaders, though, understand that a yellow or red indicator could be taken as showing weakness in their own project leadership skills.  In this case, the project leader is inclined to show a troubled project as green and hope they can fix any problems before they are noticed.  There is also a dynamic that red and yellow projects require more work from the project manager to explain what is going wrong and to do extra tasks to fix the problems.  When the project is already in trouble, this extra work is the last thing the project leader needs.  This is another reason to shade projects toward green.

Instead of this, managers could set the meaning of green, yellow and red differently, such that they get more value from the stoplight report.  I suggest that green can mean, "The project is going well, we don't need help from management."  Yellow can mean, "We are starting to worry about some aspects of the project and want some advice from management about how do proceed."  For yellow projects, the project leader should give options to the management team for a decision rather than just present the problems.  Then red can mean, "This project is in trouble and needs action from management to fix it."  In most cases, red projects should have been escalated to management as soon as they turned red, so if they are still red at the project review, that should mean that the project leader has yet to receive the support they needed from the managers on the project.  Red becomes a reminder to the management team that the project needs their help.

With a better use of the project stoplight report, management reviews can become a useful working session rather than a tedious meeting of blame passing.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Tips for Speakers from James Duncan Davidson

I consider comfort with public speaking to be an important leadership skill. Leaders can not avoid being in front of groups, and they should strive to look comfortable there. Note that I didn't say they have to feel comfortable.

James Duncan Davidson is a photographer who has spent a lot of time photographing speakers, most notably for O'Reilly Media conferences. Being forced to watch both good and bad speakers has given him some insights into what works. I particularly liked this one: "Don't pace aimlessly. ... From the audience perspective, a speaker like this looks like a caged animal."

In public speaking, practice helps, but I've found that careful consideration of what works for others has been more help to me. James' article is well worth a read to help you avoid common mistakes.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Chick-fil-A Is Closed On Sunday

Seldom do we see corporate America stand behind a principle.  Chick-fil-A is a noteworthy exception.  The founder, chairman and CEO, Truett Cathy (that's him on the sign), built the business around five principles including "Closed on Sundays:"

1. Climb with Care and Confidence
2. Create a "Loyalty Effect"
3. Never Lose a Customer
4. Put Principles and People Ahead of Profits
5. Closed on Sundays

In spite of, or more likely due to these principles, Chick-fil-A boasts 2007 sales of $2.64 billion and 40 consecutive years of sales increases.  With such outward demonstration of principled leadership, it has build both staff- and customer-loyalty.  On one visit to our local mall we met a couple dressed as cows as part of a promotion to get a free meal.  A free fast food meal is not worth such effort, if you don't also love the company.

Look to Truett Cathy and Chick-fil-A for an example of how valuable treating your team and customers can be.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Leadership Lessons from Lean Manufacturing

I have been learning more about Lean Manufacturing at work and was introduced to the booklet The Toyota Way as part of the training. The booklet describes the 14 principles of the Toyota Production System also known as Just In Time Production. This corporate philosophy may be a key reason for the success of Toyota.

In looking at the 14 principles, I was struck by how many of them were focused around good leadership. The very first principle, "Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals," emphasizes the importance of having and following a strong vision. Building a strong vision is the first principle of a good leadership approach.

I am always amazed at what I find when I look for lessons outside my normal scope. Take some time to learn some leadership lessons in the 14 Principles of the Toyota Production System.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Positive Experience with BoltBus

Yesterday I dropped someone off to take the BoltBus from Boston to New York City. The experience was outstanding, and far beyond my expectation for the price. The ticket taker at the gate was extremely friendly and helpful. He chatted with folks in line, efficiently processing new people as they arrived. All the while he answered questions he must hear a dozen times each day, just as pleasant as can be. He mentioned that he was happy he had such a great job, and it was clear that he was sincere.

I think you can tell how good a company is by how much their people like working for them. Despite having a job most people would hate, the BoltBus ticket taker loves his job. You should be able to say the same for all the people on your teams, no matter how unglamorous their job is.

BoltBus is also a marvel of disruptive business models. When I think of modes of travel, taking the bus falls right at the bottom. The ride is uncomfortable; the trip is long; and the companionship is questionable. BoltBus has overcome all three of these issues, while delivering service at half the price of other modes of travel.

BoltBus has found a niche of providing frequent service between just a few hub cities. For $20 they take you from the center of Boston to the center of New York. They fill the bus by creating a sense of scarcity, offering cheaper prices for earlier booking. The first ticket on every bus is only $1.  And they attract the younger crowd with great prices and free Internet access.

Compare the BoltBus to its parents Greyhound and PeterPan. Greyhound offers the same trip at $37. PeterPan charges $35, but they do have special on-line pricing similar to BoltBus.  The same trip on Amtrak starts at $89.  And the cheapest airfare is $152 round-trip on American Airlines.  It's unclear why anyone would take a plane from Boston to New York.  Getting to and from the airports into the cities, plus pre-boarding time for security makes the trip longer.  It's certainly more expensive, and on such a short flight there are no amenities to make it worth it.

BoltBus is worth watching for its business model, but equally worth watching for the culture that makes its staff so happy to work there.