A recent TV ad shows a bank being robbed.  As customers are commanded to throw themselves on the floor, the still-standing guard tells the customers the bank is being robbed.  One of them asks if the guard is going to call for help.  He informs them his job is to monitor bank security, not assure it.

The humor of the vignette, and the absurdity it evokes, can easily be applied to the world of complex organizations and our efforts to seek improvement.  We conduct satisfaction surveys, create balanced scorecards, install auditing systems such as ISO 9001 and Baldrige Criteria, use net promoter scores to compare ourselves with competitors and take other measures to monitor how well we are doing with customers.  As with monitoring a bank robbery, it can make leaders feel better while creating a false sense of security.

Our leadership mission to achieve mastery of customer-centered excellence starts with acceptance of the evidence:  “Managers Often Fail to Use or Understand Their Own Data on Customer Satisfaction”.  Such is the conclusion made by co-authors at Indiana University who used results from 70,000 Customer Satisfaction Index surveys, ASQ Survey.  Among the findings is that managers spend heavily to capture satisfaction data that, when received, is misunderstood, minimized, and misapplied to strategic imperatives that could achieve excellence.

Our own research over more than twenty years goes even deeper in revealing key elements of the problem for leaders, including their struggle to:

  • Incorporate customer priorities and related measures of success into the enterprise strategic plan.
  • Provide all employees with a method for unambiguously determining who “the customer” is, relevant to the real work they do.
  • Refer to all work as products (not just what gets sold) which can be designed for excellence.
  • Shift enterprise preoccupation with process improvement to put customer-desired outcomes first.
  • Assure questions asked of customers (whether by survey, focus group or dialogue) include their objective performance, subjective perception and desired-outcome expectations for every product produced within the enterprise.
  • Remove ambiguity and misalignment of core values, measures of success and recognition or consequences.

Inventor Charles Kettering famously said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved”. Albert Einstein said, “If I were given one hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.”  Leaders wishing to follow this sage advice, should take a look at the strategic plan.  You will likely notice we generally articulate what we can call producer-desired outcomes and measures reflecting things like market share, sales, capacity for growth, cost reduction and profitability.  Where are the well-articulated customer-desired outcomes and measures of success?  Such outcomes for financial services firms, healthcare providers, hospitality firms and departments of highways could include, respectively, the following:

  • Increased wealth
  • Wellness and good health
  • A good night’s sleep
  • Stress-free arrival at the target destination

It is rare for such priority customer outcomes to be identified or defined in the strategic plan.  If we don’t define them, what is the likelihood we have created measures of success? Not so good.  That means we have not defined the problem, as Kettering and Einstein would instruct.  We also rarely ask questions about them in our satisfaction surveys.  With no measures of success, what happens to goals for improvement?  There aren’t any. It is this very information we need to drive the proactive pursuit of excellence.

Get a quick picture of where you currently are in mastering customer-centered excellence in 5 minutes at C3IQ.  Expect to see ideas that will visibly support your success on the first and last of the six bullets above. To address the others, you’ll find it helpful to see Voice of the Customer in a Widget-Free World.