Unrecoverable Errors in more than Baseball
Spring is my favorite time of the year. It is so green and full of promise and new beginnings. The big issue for me is how easily distracted I am during those first few warm days. I fall into a sort of stream of consciousness thought drift. The crack of the bat from baseball practice in the park across the canal is one of my favorite sounds. I then start thinking about a whole string of baseball related thoughts. Just when and how quickly my Mets will self-destruct? What is used to give the infield that beautiful red clay contrast against the perfect green of the outfield grass? It turns out to be something called “Soil Master Red Clay”. It was specially developed to drain and not form mud or produce excessive airborne dust. This leads to thoughts of great base runners which leads me to thoughts of Pete Rose. This, of course leads to musings about the warm welcome A-Rod received after sitting out a piddly year for alleged steroid use while Pete remains banned for life for betting on his own team. This of course, is a natural Segway to thoughts about Ted Williams and the image of Teddy Ballgame shooting annoying seagulls off of the light stanchions in Fenway Park after he was robbed of a homerun by a gull colliding with his perfectly hit ball. I can just imagine how that would play in the media today. This completes the circle back to thoughts of how much company behaviors are driven by public perceptions of their brand.
There was a time when the term “Made in Japan” was a derisive term for anything cheaply and poorly manufactured. Japan developed some of the toughest and most visible export quality requirements and totally turned the perception of Japanese brand quality around. The US auto Industry was forced to face their own denial about quality issues and misreading and ignoring public perception. “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam should be required reading for every business executive and quality professional as a cautionary tale about the price of intentional hubris. The US Auto Industry learned from their mistakes and regained their footing and consumer confidence. Korea has now taken their position as the perennial butt of quality and reliability jokes to heart as well. They went all in and demonstrated their faith in significant investments they had made in improving quality and reliability for their brands. They offered the most aggressive and comprehensive warranty in the industry. They forced every automobile manufacturer to offer similarly competitive packages. At the end of the day it was the consumer who benefitted from both the competition and improvements. Corporations that became convinced that self-perceived superiority would carry the day regardless of the march of time, technology and changing consumer tastes and preferences learned a difficult and sometimes fatal lesson. This is made abundantly clear to me when I drive past the sprawling demolition site that was once the vast industrial campus of Polaroid. In the same industry, I can’t help but sadly shake my head every time I hear Paul Simon sing “Kodachrome”, a name so intimately associated with photographs, images and memories that the word alone was enough to evoke the emotions by the mere mention of the brand. Today the idea of cameras that actually use film is considered an artistic anachronism. What makes for the difference between companies who, even if they stumble, evolve and eventually thrive? Why do other companies dissolve slowly or quickly into oblivion or worse become the cautionary tale for a new generation? While I am sure that several Business School grad students have killed a forest crafting their version of what went wrong into a Master Thesis narrative, it doesn’t take a Wharton degree to zero in on the primary causes:
- These companies remained stationary while technology evolved past them. In some cases they actually developed and owned the next generation technology and chose to sell it rather than embrace it.
- Failing to listen to their core customer base to understand trends and evolving needs.
- Falling into the trap of thinking that customers must and will buy what we want to sell them with a deaf ear to any competing logic.
- Losing sight of the return on investment and value proposition that their product presented to a client. This can be particularly devastating if there is a descending curve to the ROI versus an ascending trend representing evolving needs that your product fails to address in the Market.
The first few examples in this article clearly demonstrate that no matter how bad the perception might be companies with a reality based grasp of their situation can plan intelligently to address their problems. In the automotive sector, many companies have worked hard to battle problems of their own making and the economic onslaught of a financial crisis that they had not caused but one that could very well have destroyed each of them.
Your Quality Management System has tools that can prove invaluable in both avoiding this sort of situation and in prudent crisis management if you find yourself in troubled waters:
- Management Review, properly conducted, can provide transparency to senior management and afford an opportunity to recognize unfavorable trends and take actions to counter and correct them.
- Customer Complaints are an important insight into how closely aligned with your customers wants and needs you really are.
- An unbiased look at business opportunities lost or deferred can be a real wake up call.
- Engaging with your customers through structured visits, Town Halls, and social media input can be a great way to keep dialogues open and a finger on the pulse of the markets wants and needs.
- Clear eyed review of root cause analysis and risk assessment for internal and external issues is a critical component of your strategic early warning and prevention system
Hmmm…I think I just heard a fish jump out in the canal. It’s flounder season. That reminds me of an entire chain of thoughts for another spring day. There is a world of things your company can do to stay in touch and avoid becoming irrelevant.