The current state of the world’s economy is constantly in the news and on everyone’s lips. The news everywhere is economic gloom with one corporate financial disaster following in the wake of another. Interspersed is news of corporate indiscretion, misinformation and gross mismanagement resulting in public mistrust of these institutions.
At first glance, it would appear that individuals in the workplace are powerless to do anything about the impending fate that awaits us as the decimation of the industrial workplace continues.
Yet each of these horror stories has valuable lessons for all – if we choose to learn.
If one looks back at the last 75 years, bad economic times usually result in stronger companies emerging from the ashes of economic ruin. Examples abound: BMW emerged out of bankruptcy to the forefront of automotive technology; Harley Davidson was close to insolvency and then went on to gain market share by re-defining motorcycling “freedom;” Toyota was a “tin-can” car maker of the fifties that redefined itself to be synonymous with quality.
Others re-invented familiar concepts and were born during challenging times: Southwest Airlines reinvented the idea of “peoples express with no-frills” flying concept and Nike debunked the “we don’t need another running shoe manufacturer”- when Adidas ruled.
If one looks at the common denominator for success that makes each of these companies re-emerge as formidable competitors in their field, it may be traced to a disarmingly simple recipe: really understanding their customer needs and matching the company’s competence to satisfying that need; never resting on ones laurels and being ever-eager to pursue the next level of competence in what they do.
A word of caution here on the “really understanding customer needs.” Defining the customer need can sometimes cripple you if you get it wrong. For example, if we defined the need as -“designing the best bar of soap on the market”…, we would embark on an exercise to make that bar of soap the “best bar” on the market by making it more fragrant, more resistant to crumbling when wet, giving it the ability to float in the bathtub, etc. However, no matter what we do, we would never come up with liquid soap as the “better bar”. Had we taken a step back and defined the problem as “needing to be clean” it might have opened up solutions beyond the traditional soap bar, with liquid soap being a potential solution! I would like to think that someone, somewhere initiated that concept through this holistic approach!
In my personal experience with working on projects led by Black and Green Belts of the Lean Six Sigma discipline, I saw real-world examples of this at an airline where the Black Belts were working on making the food/drinks cart narrower and lighter so that it would facilitate serving passengers quickly on short flight segments better. Had they defined the problem as “needing to get drinks to passengers in the shortest time..”, they could have done away with the cart altogether in favor of hand-held trays – a simple yet elegant solution!
In an inner city hospital, a similar team of Black and Green Belts were working on a “bar-coding solution” to identify patients accurately so that the correct care (including drug administering) could be administered to the right patient. However, the team defined the problem as “…no bar-coding mechanism to distinguish..”. The real issue should have been defined as “the lack of an accurate mechanism for identifying patients…” Certainly, bar-coding is one solution but there are others, RFID (radio frequency identification) being another potential solution. Once again, the team had jumped to the solution prematurely and had therefore constrained themselves to solutions within the defined limits. In other words, the team’s solutions were constrained by the limits placed by the problem definition (incorrectly) right at the outset.
The times may be a changing, but the essence of success has not: paying close attention to the customer and understanding their needs. To which we will add: and stating those needs accurately. This should be the starting point of all business philosophies.
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