Why is Service so Bad?

Customers like to kvetch a lot and so it’s easy to complain about missing the “good old days” when a lot of times the old days weren’t so good with no vaccine for polio, 1 in 2 children dying before the age of 10, maybe a world war going on with millions dying, being born lower class where your chances of going to college were nonexistent or living in a time where there was no such thing as an iPod.  Living in the past wasn’t always better.

But lots of people (me being one) feel that overall service performance is getting worse.  That’s not just generational narcissism or  curmudgeonly attitudes that come from an aging group of baby boomers.  I do a lot of client work around service issues and customers experience and that’s my take.  And Bloomberg and JD Power collect data on overall service and that’s their take too–overall service performance is getting worse.  Oh, there are exceptions–firms that continue to raise the bar.  But overall, most firms seem to be doing a worse job serving customers and creating distinctive experiences that provide a competitive edge.  How is that so when so many firms pay lipservice and actually spend a lot of bucks on supposedly improving service.

I’d argue there are a couple of factors:

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Gulf Oil and Performance Lessons

With some labeling the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the worst environmental disaster the USA has ever experienced, it’s worth looking at what we know so far about efforts to deal with the spill for performance improvement lessons.  As I look at what I’ve heard about this disaster, several critical lessons come to my mind.

  1. Ignore process at your own peril.  There has been such an emphasis on “action” and “leadership” (both by private and public sector organizations) that we’ve seen lots of money, people and activity–but often at cross-purposes.  Throwing money and resources at any problem is usually ineffective when there is no clear alignment around the process connecting all of the specific tasks.
  2. It’s a lot easier to prevent a problem than to fix a mistake.  The Gulf Oil spill illustrates this point so well–far better and easier to prevent the rig blowout than to clean up tar balls from beaches and try to bathe birds. Continue reading

The Checklist Manifesto

Anyone who is familiar with my work or my publications knows that job aids are near and dear to my heart.  My third book (Job Aid Basics) is about the subject.  Any serious performance student or consultant knows about the power of job aids—about how they are a cheap and effective way of improving performance.  Well, there is a great new book out by Surgeon Atul Gawande called The Checklist Manifesto.

Checklists are just one example of a job aid.  What is a job aid?  A job aid is a device or tool used to improve memory or confidence on the job and thus overall performance.  A wrench is not a job aid (it’s just a tool).   But a checklist (which reminds us of what to do), a recipe with steps (so we don’t add the eggs too soon), a trouble-shooting guide on how to figure out why the car doesn’t start—these are all job aids.

Gawande writes about a number of examples in this great book but his first primary examples involves healthcare.  He examines the case of the Johns Hopkins ICU where using a simple 5 bullet checklist, the staff reduced central line infections from 11% to 0% saving an estimated 43 infections, 8 lives and 2 million dollars per year.  Gawande and a team then went to a number of hospitals around the world and tried the same approach from rural Tanzania to Seattle.  Using a 19-point checklist for surgery, they found that EVERY hospital experienced a significant drop in post-operative complications and deaths.  In the 6 months after the checklist was introduced complications fell by an average of 36% and deaths fell by an average of 47%.  This was no new technology, no other major changes or influx of talent or resources—just the use of the checklist during surgery.

Performance consultants know about job aids.  Joe Harless gets credit for having coined the term.  Job aids are often a faster, cheaper alternative to training.  They’re an underutilized way of improving performance and a useful tool in the performance consultant’s tool box.

Gawande has done us performance consultants a tremendous favor.  He’s got a significant following (staff in the Obama White House look at his writings, both this book and his previous one Better about improving performance).  Dr. Gawande has provided very specific, tangible and quantifiable examples about how performance can be radically improved with even just simple tools or approaches.  For all the clients out there who want to throw training at the problem or rehire a work force or change the bonus structure, Gawande’s work is a useful tool to help us make the case for a performance-based approach to improvement.