A great deal of emphasis is placed on customer service and problem solving. Many companies employ special teams whose responsibility is to swoop down on dissatisfied customers or out-of-control processes and put them right. This used to be referred to as "firefighting," but it carries the negative connotation of being surprised all the time by flare-ups. Nowadays, we think of ourselves as living in an era of sophisticated corrective action, rather like a civilian version of the Green Berets.
Our society has established several ways of dealing with disasters, crimes and other undesirable happenings. Most cities have a 911 telephone system that allows citizens to report crimes, fires or injuries. Often, emergency personnel arrive at the scene while the emergency is still in progress. Afterward, they return to their "on-alert" position, prepared to react.
I much prefer cultivating prevention in life rather than rapid response. Most fires can be prevented if citizens are properly educated on the subject; likewise, crime is reduced when the police are visible and insist on compliance to laws both small and large. New York dropped its crime rate to its lowest level ever by taking a zero-tolerance attitude and policing high-crime areas.
In business situations, management's attitude toward noncompliance stands out very clearly. If its message is, "Go help the customer after we have disappointed them," rather than, "Let's learn how to do things right all the time," then a culture of correction will persist.
I deal with a bank that truly exemplifies 911 management. I have several accounts there for the company, myself and my children. I also have trust accounts. The bank is forever getting the account numbers mixed up and putting deposits in the wrong places. When I call this to the bank's attention, it leaps into action. Senior executives are pulled in and respond with energy and concern. Everything gets straightened out -- that time. But then another incident occurs before very long. Each time, the bank blames its clerical staff, but I blame management's attitude. It rewards the fact that problems get solved instead of learning to prevent them in the first place.
911 management is a lot more fun than plodding along learning how to run an organization in a reliable manner. But that attitude doesn't help customers succeed.
About the author
Philip B. Crosby, a popular speaker and founder of Philip Crosby Associates--now PCA II--is also the author of several books, including Quality Is Still Free (McGraw-Hill, 1995) and The Absolutes of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1996). Visit his Web site at www.philipcrosby.com.