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Harry Hertz

Customer Care

As the Holiday Season Approaches...

... prepare yourself for three of the most dreaded words in the English language

Published: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 - 15:49

Having recently bought some furniture at a big box store, I couldn’t help seeing these three dreaded words were boldly printed on the outside of the carton: “Some Assembly Required.”

As I opened the box, I wondered what I’d find. Would there be lengthy assembly instructions and lots of different screws, bolts, washers, and nuts? Could I ignore the instructions and use my powers of logic to assemble the furniture? (Real men don’t read instructions!) If there were many small parts and I had to follow the instructions, would they be in readable English? Would the instructions be mostly in pictures that clearly showed assembly sequences? Would they have diagrams of full-size screws, bolts, etc. so that measurement with a ruler wouldn’t be needed? Would all the parts be there? Have the pieces been cut/machined correctly?

In my case there were many different screws, bolts, washers, lock nuts, and cap nuts, so I opted to use the instructions. The first instruction is always to count the parts, but I wasn’t about to count all those nuts and bolts. So here’s a brief summary of what happened:
• I unpacked the box, scattering little static-charged Styrofoam beads all over the floor.
• The instructions had clear pictures (for what they included).
• On the third attempt, I put the bolts into a curved seat back in an order that worked (starting at the center and working out). This was not in the instructions, but only that sequence forced the outer edge holes to be torqued into place to line up with the holes on the matching piece.
• One step from the end, I determined that I had three extra lock nuts and three too few washers. I could have called the manufacturer and had the washers sent with significant delay, or I could go to the hardware store, purchase a packet of similar washers, and lose just an hour. I opted for the latter, mumbling to myself about the inability of the manufacturer to get it right.
• I finished the assembly and spent 15 minutes clearing off and chasing Styrofoam around the floor and around the edges of the dustpan and trash bag.

After the experience, I tried to relate it to possible process failures from my perspective as a customer. While there are many questions in the Baldrige Excellence Framework Criteria that are relevant to the topic, I will highlight just a few of them to encourage the thinking of people in all organizations who interact with consumers (and customers in general):
1. How do you prevent defects, service errors, and rework?
2. How do you minimize customers’ productivity losses?
3. How do you observe customers to obtain actionable information?
4. How do you manage relationships with customers to meet their requirements and exceed their expectations?
5. How do you improve your work processes to improve products and reduce variability?

The question that particularly intrigued me was No. 3 about observing customers. I wonder how many manufacturers who use the words “some assembly required” actually observe several “real” customers follow their instructions to check for obvious gaps or errors. How many ask their experts, who possess full knowledge of how the product should be assembled, to write and be the testers of the instructions?

Although this article relates to assembly of manufactured product, I encourage everyone to think about instructions they give (or don’t give) to customers, students, patients, or colleagues. Are they clear and easy to follow? Do they lack detail or contain too much? Are they instructions you’d like to receive?

While you ponder those questions, allow me to return to the holiday spirit. I do wish you good luck, and... let the assembly begin.


About The Author

Harry Hertz’s picture

Harry Hertz

Harry Hertz retired in June 2013 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he had served as director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 1995. For more than 15 years he was the primary architect of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, responsible for expansion of the Baldrige Program and Award to healthcare, education, and nonprofits, including government. Hertz serves on the advisory group for VHA’s Center for Applied Healthcare Studies, and on the adjunct faculty of American University. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T.