Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

Managing the Customer Experience

Work with processes, not just within them.

I wrote this column while sitting at gate H-10 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for my connecting flight to San Jose, California. On my earlier flight from Montreal, I had read a pamphlet, "A Spirit of Greatness," that provided numerous examples of how individual airline employees felt about the importance of great service and how the employees react to specific customer problems that they encounter. It was an excellent example of good public relations.

 Because my flight from Montreal was an international flight, the airline asked passengers to arrive at the airport two hours before flight time. That meant I needed to be at the airport by 7:23 a.m., which required me to leave my hotel by 6:30 a.m., too early to get breakfast.

 Boarding for my flight began at 8:38 a.m., so there was just enough time to get checked in, go through customs and rush to the gate. I got to the gate at 8:32 a.m. and arrived in Chicago at 11:14 a.m. Breakfast was not served on the flight, even in first class—I should have been forewarned when I saw one of the flight attendants carrying a Burger King bag on board. Although everyone on the flight was hungry, there was nothing that even the most inventive flight attendant could do about it.

 What can we learn from this example? I learned to stop by the airport McDonald's counter and get a Happy Meal before I fly with this U.S. airline again. But there's more.

 First, no matter how good or caring your employees are, they cannot make up for bad, inadequate processes. The flight attendants were very good; they kept my glass filled with Diet Coke—but they couldn't serve something that wasn't on board the plane.

 The process sets the boundaries within which employees perform. A truly caring, creative employee can stretch these boundaries, but not significantly. When the process boundaries are stretched, they become fuzzy, and when the process boundaries become fuzzy, the process results become fuzzy and unpredictable. We make real improvements when we make changes to processes, not when we ignore the processes and work around them. Just as in the manufacturing industry, we start making real progress when we stop defining quality as "fitness for use" and start defining it as "conformance to requirements." When quality is defined as conformance to requirements, there is no longer a need for off-specs. This drives the business to change its requirements rather than off-specing individual parts or lots.

 The same concept should be applied to the service industries, government and all the support functions. We all need to be able to meet our customers' needs within the process boundaries. If these processes are inadequate, they need to be changed. For example, the flight attendant could have gotten around the process by buying 120 hamburgers and french fries, but the airline's management could probably find a better solution simply by changing the process.

 The second lesson is that it's important to look at the total process, not just at subprocesses, when designing or making improvements. You will never optimize the total process by optimizing individual subprocesses. I would guess that the airline looked at the small part of the travel process for which it was responsible, the flight time of two hours and 14 minutes, and decided that a meal was not required because of the departure and arrival times. It didn't consider that it required passengers to be at the counter by 7:23 a.m. and start boarding the plane at 8:32 a.m., nor did it consider the amount of time it takes to travel to the airport, pick up luggage and reach the final destination. The airline should be responsible for the time between the passenger's arrival at the counter line and the baggage's return on the carousel.

 Too often, we look at our processes through the organization's eyes, not through the customer's. There's a lot of talk about reflecting the customer's voice in the design process, but this is inadequate. More than 98 percent of your customers will never tell you what they're really thinking. These silent majorities are the individuals who make your reputation. They're usually reluctant to tell you what they're thinking, but they're never shy about telling other potential customers. To overcome this major hole in most quality systems, the organization needs to observe the total process as the customer observes it. Feel what the customer feels; see what the customer sees; hear what the customer hears. In other words, understand every emotion and sensation that the customers experience as they are subjected to your organization's processes.

 Step outside your organization and look objectively at it. Does it look inviting and friendly, or is it sterile and forbidding? Try the door handle. Is it loose, cold or hard to use? Does the door open with ease, and does it have a soft doorstop? Once the door is open, does the interior draw you in, or is it so cluttered with products and advertisements that it turns you away?

 Look at your organization's processes from a customer's standpoint. It's absolutely imperative that you manage your customers' experiences as total experiences, from the time they consider your name to the time they cease to feel your impact.

About the author

 H. James Harrington is a principal at Ernst & Young and serves as its international quality adviser. He can be reached by e-mail at jharrington@qualitydigest.com , or visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .

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