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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

How to Manage Connected Cycles of Service

There are moments of truth within moments of truth

Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 11:57

“We have 50,000 moments of truth every day.”
—Jan Carlzon, CEO, Scandinavian Airways (SAS), 1989

I am watching icebergs float by as we navigate Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord, at the end of which lies the spectacular Sawyer Glacier. The wonders outside, however, are equaled by those onboard the ship.

Cruising aboard the Holland America Line’s MS Oosterdam (rhymes with “toaster-dam”), I have for some days now watched the execution of service with smiling eyes and occasionally with jaw-dropping astonishment. This kind of service does not happen by accident; it is the result of inspired engineering, empowered employees, and managers that sweat the details. And the crew’s methodology is applicable to all industries.

My fellow passengers seem to be generally taking the service for granted, but of course they do not possess the same fascination for the secrets of sustained service quality delivery as Quality Digest Daily readers. In the interest of full disclosure, my traveling companion and I are enjoying some VIP treatment due to a personal relationship with Holland America’s head office. Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the underlying fundamentals of the service model. To put some context on that model, the Oosterdam carries nearly 2,000 passengers along with its 800 employees.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to service in the airline industry if it was taken over by the cruise industry. The penalty for poor service on a four-hour flight is an apology, some free ticket vouchers, and once in a while, a lawsuit. The flight crew knows it will all be over soon. But on a cruise ship the penalty begins with 2,000 angry cruisers glued to you for a week (or weeks)!

Holland America Line’s MS Oosterdam

My service experience onboard the Oosterdam is beautifully described by the “moments of truth” model, a concept originated by the Jan Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), and immortalized in his 1989 book by the same title.

His central theme (my paraphrasing) was that at SAS, each customer came into contact with an average of five SAS employees for a given flight, each encounter lasting for an average of 15 seconds. Each one of those interaction points was a moment of truth where SAS had an opportunity to form an impression, good, bad, or ugly. These moments later evolved to include interaction with people, machines, environment, information, anything really.

This concept spread like wildfire throughout the service industries, and better became defined as:

A moment of truth is any time a customer comes in contact with any aspect of an organization and has an opportunity to form an impression.

Or, graphically, the cycle of service could be shown as follows, with the dots representing the moments of truth:

Of course, it’s never as simple as a single cycle. A cruise ship is less a “hotel with a hull” than it is a “town with a tiller.” Which means there are cycles of service inside cycles of service overlapping cycles of service, e.g., the coordination of schedules for food service, docking at a port, disembarking for the land excursions, the bingo games, the shows, and children’s entertainment, all while the weather is changing, and the sea becomes so rough that service is disrupted and parts of the ship are closed. On top of that, ship routes can change, and so of course, does the schedule (as happened with us).

For example, one of the entertainers, a fantastic magician named Leo Ward, was asked to make a special and unprepared performance later in the week due to the change in the ship’s routing, which required redesigning the stage and announcing the extra show to the passengers, all while not disrupting other planned activities. So a moments-of-truth model would more accurately resemble the following illustration:

Moments of truth on the Oosterdam

My initial draft of this article ended up reading like an endless series of raves: the wonderful Indonesian and Filipino stewards with their genuine smiles and helpfulness; the spotless cleanliness (I looked behind, lifted, peeked into hidden corners, and performed a quite thorough albeit faux white-glove inspection of my cabin); the dining room, the Pinnacle Grill, and the Caneletto restaurants (divine); the entertainment; the perfectly ripe fresh fruit; the library; and the gym (imagine jogging five miles on a treadmill while perched on the bow of the ship with the Canadian Rockies piercing the clouds before you, and towels, water cups, music, and lighting all thoughtfully positioned for your convenience).

But that first draft came across as ridiculous, like an enthralled kid’s summary of what Santa brought. So instead I decided to examine some interesting service-delivery challenges for the ship and its management. As W. Edwards Deming would scold, we must look at systemic issues, those things chronically caused by the system you have designed, rather than special causes, the things that happen, unexpectedly, for special reasons.

Where’s my suitcase?

Despite my raving about the service, it was curious to me how the confiscation of prohibited goods was apparently left out of the moments-of-truth analysis. The security staff has a location in the main lobby, a 20 ft × 20 ft nook where they store any luggage that appears to contain certain items (e.g., bottles of liquor, irons, anything dangerous) that are identified during X-ray screening.

In my case it was a Leatherman knife; they wanted to confirm the blade was not longer than four inches. It took two calls over some hours to be told that I had to go down to the main lobby to speak with security. After standing in the wrong line, I found the correct one, and watched with amazement as the personal effects of little old ladies where pulled out for all to see, their looks of horrified embarrassment also plain to see as they suffered through the ordeal. Actually, the security agents don’t rifle through your suitcase; they simply “assist” you while looking for your contraband. Once the issue is settled, you are left to repack and hoist your luggage to your room. I would have offered to help one delicate elderly woman had I not been in the middle of sorting out my own problem. Then again, that’s what the stewards are there for.

With even the slightest attention to workflow, customer convenience, and privacy, along with a miniscule investment, a modified process would include a privacy curtain and a security staff requirement to say at the completion of the inspection, “Ma’am, I’ll have this sent up to your room, unless you’d like to take it now.” In my case, I just told them to send it up, something that seemed out of the ordinary to the staff.

A number of simple tools can be used to analyze your moments of truth, and my favorite is the following table. Here it gives an example of what moments of truth might look like at the security station.

Moments-of-Truth Analysis

Moment of Truth

Planned/ Unplanned



Customer expectations

What can go wrong?

Ways to prevent problems

Ways to go beyond expectations

Passenger reports to security station; prohibited items detected during luggage X-ray.


However, did we notify passengers, or did they have to track down their luggage?

Average of 1 in 50 passengers = 100 events per ship.*

Waiting in line = 6 minutes avg.*

Noninvasive. Non-interrogational.

“You’re not in trouble. Policies are for safety.”

Private belongings displayed for all to see.

Passenger assumes no porter service available.

Create privacy screens.

Offer to have luggage brought to room.

Construct sign about what’s happening.

Have staff locate luggage while passengers are in line.

*Purely a guess to illustrate a frequency and length metrics.

I’ve seen such a tool incorporated into an organization’s ISO 9001-compliant work instructions. It’s very useful because it serves not just as an analysis tool but also a terrific communications format.

We could do the same analysis for other areas of service challenge onboard the Oosterdam, e.g., the surprising difficulty to get milk rather than cream with your coffee in the dining room at breakfast (but not dinner); the confusion surrounding requests for decaffeinated espresso (an oxymoron perhaps); the exactly 50-percent success rate at delivering room-service breakfast within the selected half-hour interval via the menu hung on your outside doorknob (three out of six days, admittedly a small sample). These are all relatively minor issues, granted, but targets for continuous improvement nevertheless.

Bottom line

For the Holland America Line, it’s clear the company pursues perfection, and its employees are unquestioned experts at creating a magical customer experience, delivered with grace, humor, elegance, and charm. I can’t wait to go again—but this time I’ll carry my Leatherman in my pocket.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


El Momiento de la Verdad

Curiously enough, Wikipedia provides for many references on Carlzon's "The Moments of Truth", concerning the relationships between service providers and their customers. But it scarcely tackles the "service" that a toreador will provide to his "customer", that is, the wounded-to-death bull:  will he humanly put the animal to death, ending its sufferings, or will he leave it in the slaughterers' hands? Will have the toreador the courage to? That's the real moment of truth, when the sun starts to set down.