Sunday, March 4, 2012

Problem causes versus problem symptoms

This segment addresses the differences between problem causes and problem symptoms, their relationship, and the nature of actions taken to address both.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What is problem solving?

This segment is entitled "What is problem solving?" and it provides a basic overview of problem solving, including the nature of causes, the fallacy of a single root cause, and the need to match corrective actions to the most significant causes.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New book: Problem Solving in Plain English

Buy it HERE

New Book Explores Best Ways for Organizations to Solve Problems

Effective problem solving is the most neglected organizational competency, often perpetuated by complacence about the status quo, a culture of blame, reluctance or inability to pursue true causes and lack of time. To address these issues, Craig Cochran, the north Atlanta region manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, has written a new book, Problem Solving in Plain English (Paton Press, 2010).

“Managers need to re-examine their processes and problem-solving and think beyond the surface. If they understand their current process, then they can consider causes and potential causes of problems,” Cochran said. “Rarely is there a single root cause to be acted upon; most problems have a web of interrelated causes and potential causes.”

According to Cochran, effective problem solving is equal parts art and science, and he explains why problem-solving efforts that start out strong with motivated team members and supportive managers often fizzle out before they produce any benefits. Cochran suggests using a structured problem-solving method that focuses on processes rather than people.

“There are two major problem-solving myths: the perfection myth and the punishment myth. The perfection myth is the belief that if everyone tries hard enough, no mistakes will be made. The punishment myth says that if we punish wrong-doers, fewer mistakes will be made,” he explained. “Using a structured problem-solving method ensures a degree of consistency and provides the framework for the successful application of analytical tools.”

This book is ideally for managers with long-standing business problems, as well as front-line employees who are often intimately familiar with dealing with them. Cochran covers a variety of topics, including selecting the right problem; forming effective problem-solving teams; planning and implementing corrective actions; verifying effectiveness; writing a problem statement; identifying root causes; and defining the current process.

Cochran has an M.B.A. from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a Certified Quality Manager, Certified Quality Engineer, Certified Quality Auditor, and Certified HACCP Auditor through the American Society for Quality. He is also certified as a Quality Management Systems Lead Auditor through the Registrar Accreditation Board of the Quality Society of Australasia (RABQSA).

Cochran is also the author of The Continual Improvement Process: from Strategy to the Bottom Line; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; Becoming a Customer Focused Organization; and ISO 9001: In Plain English, all available from Paton Press ( He has written numerous articles in national and international publications and is frequently featured as a speaker at conferences on quality, performance improvement and management.

For additional information, please contact Craig Cochran (678-699-1690); E-mail:

Writer: Nancy Fullbright
Media Relations Contact: Nancy Fullbright (912-963-2509); E-mail: (

Buy it HERE

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shakespeare’s Lessons on Leadership: Macbeth

War heroes are a special category of leaders. People don’t have any trouble getting excited about them. They embody a number of quintessential leadership attributes: bravery, resoluteness, and strength. This is exactly the sort of leader Shakespeare gives us at the beginning of Macbeth, one of the Bard’s most popular works. Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and field general, has just defeated a rebellion, with Macbeth himself slaying one of the rebels and putting his head on a pike. Nobody can say enough about Macbeth and his virtues. The King of Scotland, Duncan, gushes like a schoolgirl about Macbeth:

O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman! (Act 1, Scene 2, line 24)

Macbeth is awarded a promotion from the King before even returning from the battlefield, receiving the title of Thane of Cawdor. We learn about all of this through dialogue before the character Macbeth makes an appearance. It’s an auspicious beginning that seems to lead to leadership immortality. But wait, this is a tragedy, remember? Events are bound to turn dark. In Macbeth, events turn very dark.

We first meet Macbeth as he walks across a heath with his fellow warrior Banquo. They are finished battling and are heading home. One can only imagine their exhaustion as they trudge across the heath. On the way, they meet three witches. Not something you might see everyday, but certainly a trio that would grab your attention. The witches each greet Macbeth in turn, using his present title, his new title (which he doesn’t know about yet), and the title of King:

First witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
Second witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
Third witch: All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 48-50)

All of this comes as a bit of surprise to Macbeth and Banquo, who ask the witches to explain themselves. The witches vanish into the mist, leaving Macbeth and Banquo with many questions. A short time later, they meet two other noblemen who confirm a piece of what the witches had told them: Macbeth has just been named the Thane of Cawdor. This starts Macbeth wondering: If part of what the witches said was true, is it all true? Will I really become King? The idea of becoming King starts to work on Macbeth’s brain like a parasite, nibbling at the edge of every thought he has. It consumes him. The remainder of the play illustrates what happens when a leader allows ambition to ride roughshod over everything. Are there any leadership lessons here? You bet there are.

A leader possesses courage

There is no doubt Macbeth possesses incredible physical courage. When he has a job to do, he simply does it, without much thought of the danger it might put him in. The first mention of Macbeth’s courage comes from the report of an injured man returning from the battle:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which nev’r shook hands, or bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 16-23)

According to this report, Macbeth personally leads the assault on the rebels. As a leader, he is not content to stand in the rear and provide directions. No, he is slashing and chopping at the enemy as if he were cutting through a field of sugar cane. A leader of this sort provides immediate inspiration to his or her followers. Most business leaders don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in such a dramatic manner, but they can still embody the spirit of Macbeth by personally leading whatever initiatives they direct. Instead of a sword, a modern leader may take up a broom, a cash register, a forklift, or a computer terminal and demonstrate they believe in their cause enough to get their hands dirty doing some of the work. This is the essence of leadership.

When Macbeth faces his foe, he cuts him down the middle, chops off his head, and turns the head into a landscape ornament. This is possibly ruthless, but it is undeniably resolute. It speaks of courage enough for Macbeth and his entire army. To Macbeth, this kind of leadership is nothing more than a day’s work. His first words in the play are spoken to his fellow warrior Banquo as they head home:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (Act 1, Scene 3, line 38)

That is all Macbeth has to say about it. Essentially, he is saying, “It was a rough day that came out okay.” These are the words of a man who lead the charge into battle. His own courage doesn’t surprise him and he doesn’t feel the need to comment on it. Great leaders know their courage, and their actions require no remark. Too many leaders are in love with their own legends. When a leader begins to think too highly of himself and his deeds, it puts blinders on his judgment. The course is to be brave, lead the charge, and let your actions speak for themselves.

Macbeth’s physical courage dwarfs another kind of courage, however: psychological courage. Macbeth allows others to suggest deeds that he knows are contrary to his principles, but he lacks the psychological courage to stand up to these suggestions. A leader must embody both physical courage and psychological courage in order to be effective. Macbeth may be a hell hound on the battlefield, but when his wife says, “Jump!” he says, “How high?” That leads us to our second lesson:

A leader is never manipulated

Much is said about leaders who try to manipulate others. The manipulative leader, especially business leader, is almost a cliché. Much less is said about leaders who allow themselves to be manipulated, despite this happening with surprising frequency. Macbeth certainly allows it to happen to him. His wife, Lady Macbeth, reads a letter in which Macbeth describes his conversation with the witches and how one of their prophesies has already come true. Lady Macbeth reflects on Macbeth’s nature and how it will require some modification:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet I do fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 16-19)

Lady Macbeth is saying, yes, you’ll end up being king, in spite of yourself. Lady Macbeth suspects there is a “nearest way” that will lead to Macbeth becoming King. She is seeking the straight line that is the shortest path between points. Macbeth is the Thane of Cawdor now, and she wants him to follow the easy path to King, which of course involves murder. Lady Macbeth doesn’t think he has it in him, though. Whether Macbeth is inclined to take the shortest route or not, Lady Macbeth has a plan:

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal. (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 26-31)

What could be more insidious than “Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear”? Basically, Lady Macbeth is saying, Get yourself over here so I can reprogram your mind. She plans to manipulate him into taking whatever action is necessary to become King as soon as possible. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth has some redeeming characteristics (“…All that impedes thee…”), but she sees these qualities as weaknesses that must be overcome.

Macbeth lets himself be manipulated. He lacks the psychological courage to rebuff his wife. When Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “…You shall put this great night’s business into my dispatch…,” there is no doubting what she has in mind: the murder of the King. Macbeth responds with a few stoic words:

Macbeth: We will speak further.
Lady Macbeth: Only look up clear.
To alter favor ever is to fear.
Leave all the rest to me.
(Act 1, Scene 5, lines 72-75)

Macbeth response is ambiguous. Is he saying he agrees with her plan, but that they will develop it further, or is he telling her to put a lid on it? If Macbeth’s statement is ambiguous, there is nothing ambiguous about Lady Macbeth. She tells her husband to put on his game face and leave the thinking to her. Macbeth has a few minutes alone to think about this. His decision is that Lady Macbeth’s plan is a bad idea:

We will proceed no further in this business:
He [Duncan] hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 31-34)

It seems that Macbeth is trying to take back his leadership role. He says Duncan has been pretty good to him lately and everybody seems to think Macbeth is a fine fellow. Why rock the boat? Macbeth is taking a wait and see tactic, which seems reasonable when a leader is faced with a proposition of the kind his wife is proposing. Lady Macbeth will have none of it, though. She insults Macbeth’s courage and manhood, aware he doesn’t have the psychological courage to withstand the barrage:

Art thou afeared
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem…?
(Act 1, Scene 7, lines 39-43)

Lady Macbeth is asking her husband if he is afraid to go after what he really desires. She even pulls out the dreaded C word (coward), which would have to been a big blow to a war horse like Macbeth. He can’t stand it:

Prithee, peace!
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 45-47)

Hush, woman, I’m as much of a man as anybody! Sure you are. Lady Macbeth knows he can be twisted, so she turns the heat up a notch. She even says she would rather smash the brains out of a nursing baby than have a coward like Macbeth for a husband:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the baby that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you
Have done to this. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 54-58)

In the face of such a withering attack, Macbeth collapses like a wet tent. He agrees to everything, ceding his leadership role to his wife:

I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
(Act 1, Scene 7, lines 79-80)

How is it that Macbeth seems so easily manipulated? After all, the guy was a war hero who possessed a great deal of physical strength, raw courage, and prowess with a sword. This isn’t the sort of person one would expect to be steered like a mule. Could it be that Macbeth didn’t have much confidence in his decision making? Once someone convinced him of what to do, he jumped to it with steely resolve. Macbeth was not someone who felt comfortable making independent decisions, though. His biggest decision came at the prodding of his wife, and all subsequent decisions are in response to this flawed and manipulated decision. Once a leader has been manipulated in such a significant way, it’s nearly impossible to turn back. The bad decision breeds more bad decisions. Even Macbeth understands that he is on a hellish road that he cannot exit:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 137-139)

A leader must be painfully honest with himself about his strengths and weaknesses. If Macbeth lacked the analytical strength and judgment for good decision making, this is something he should have addressed. Relying on bad advice was no substitute. In the era of Macbeth, leaders were assumed to arrive fully formed for their roles. Now we realize a leader is never fully formed; he or she always remains a work in progress. One strength leads to another weakness and true balance is very rare. That is why leaders must be attuned to their weaknesses, so manipulation becomes harder to accomplish. Humility and adherence to principles are two attributes that can help.

A leader remains true to his principles

Macbeth begins the play with his principles intact. His guiding principles are valor and honor, and he acts on these themes. Macbeth is certainly viscous on the battlefield, but his viciousness is in the service of valor and honor. All in all, he’s a principled leader.

The witches plant a seed in Macbeth’s head that causes his grip on these principles to loosen. They present him with a tempting proposition: he will become king. It’s not even a proposition as much as a promise. The witches explain nothing, but only throw the promise out in front of him. Macbeth begins to think he must do something to fulfill the witches’ prophesy, though the idea of murder disturbs him:

…Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of mind that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 134-142)

Shortly thereafter, the King’s son, Malcolm, is pronounced the Prince of Cumberland. This appointment pricks at Macbeth, since it seems to block his path to King. His principles weaken and ambition takes hold of his brain. The idea of taking action begins to seem necessary, even though Macbeth understands the action is contrary to his principles:

The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
(Act 1, Scene 4, lines 48-53)

Lady Macbeth weakens him further, completing the divorce of his principles from his psyche. Macbeth has one last blast of principled thought before giving up the ghost:

First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off…
(Act 1, Scene 7, lines 13-20)

An effective leader must always embrace a core set of principles. These are unshakable values the leader truly believes in and which inform all decision making. The principles act as the foundation for everything the leader does. The leader may not call attention to these principles, but his actions and decisions are always consistent with them. Macbeth abandons his principles when faced with temptation and manipulation. Did he even have any principles to begin with? Yes, it’s clear that he did, but he allowed them to fall by the wayside. The abandonment of his principles causes the demise of him and many of those around him. When a leader abandons his principles, the results are often fatal. Do not imagine that this does not apply to business leaders. The death analogy can be translated to the demise of the organization. Consider crash of Enron and the greed that motivated the company’s executives; their actions are not so dissimilar from those of Macbeth.

It is often helpful for a leader to document his principles in some manner. This may take the form of a mission statement, vision statement, charter, or some other “motherhood” statement. These types of documents are often discredited as cruel jokes on the organizations for which they are written. They don’t have to be. If the document reflects the underlying principles of its leaders and serves to keep everybody focused on what the leaders really believe in, then they serve a critical purpose. It all comes down to whether actions and decisions of leaders reflect the documented principles. Clarifying the principles in writing, then communicating them to everyone, is the first step.

There are famous examples of leaders who remained true to their principles, but who had the wrong principles. Adolf Hitler is a notable example. As Chancellor of Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, he remained steadfastly aligned to his principles. The only problem was that his principles included global conquest and annihilation of entire races. Macbeth’s principles are admirable when we first meet him. He just allows them to dissolve into the mist of Scottish countryside. Most leaders can claim they have ethical and constructive principles. Whether they uphold their principles on a continual basis is another matter.

A leader maintains a sense of humility

Humility is an essential attribute for a leader. It enables a leader to realize he is not infallible. His decisions and actions are not always perfect, and other people may have better ideas. Humility forces a leader to reach out and utilize all the resources at his disposal, namely the other people in his organization. A lack of humility leads to huge blind spots in the leader’s vision. It also causes the leader to ignore events that call his decision making into question.

Macbeth gradually drains himself of all humility. A humble leader would have an awareness of his weaknesses and taken action to address them. Macbeth’s weakness is an inability to make independent decisions, probably resulting from a lack of judgment and weak analytical skills. He seems to have no recognition of this, though. This lack of recognition leads Macbeth to accept advice and information from his wife and the three witches without the appropriate amount of critical analysis.

Over time, Macbeth’s lack of humility blossoms into full fledged arrogance. This is the result of two pieces of information the witches provide him:

1. Macbeth will not be vanquished until Bernam Wood transports itself to Macbeth’s castle.
2. No man born of a woman can harm Macbeth.

Macbeth believes he is invisible. Nothing can harm him, since the two conditions cited by the witches are very unlikely. Macbeth’s lack of humility blinds him when one of the conditions seems to be occurring.

Messenger: As I did stand watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and non, methought,
The wood began to move.
Macbeth: Liar and slave! (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 33-35)

Here Macbeth is faced with an indication that he may not be invincible, after all. His angry reaction is typical from a leader lacking humility. How dare anybody utter the unvarnished truth! Macbeth goes on to threaten the truth-teller with torture and death. This exposes a paradox of the un-humble leader: followers become less and less inclined to challenge the leader’s flawed vision, which further divorces the leader from reality. In this kind of environment, all but the most zealous followers defect from the cause. Macbeth faces this exact situation, as his followers flee his castle for less tyrannical surroundings.

A lack of humility within a leader creates a slippery slope that is hard to repair. It is part of a continuum that nearly results in the leader’s destruction:

1. Lack of humility: The leader believes he can do no wrong. Dissent is not encouraged. Some followers may still attempt to exert their opinions, but it is difficult.
2. Arrogance: The leader reacts with scorn and anger at anybody challenging his views. Followers know better than to present alternate points of view.
3. Delusion: The leader believes he is invincible. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or rejected.
4. Destruction: Since the leader is blind to reality, he is not even aware as his empire crumbles around him. The few remaining followers are not willing to communicate the truth.

This is exactly the path Macbeth takes. He finally faces death from a man who was delivered by Cesarean section, which was fulfills the witches’ prophesy that only a man not born of a woman can harm him.

The world of Macbeth serves as a warming to all civilized people. If your leaders don’t have true courage (physical and psychological), if they don’t uphold their principles, if they fold under pressure, and ultimately believe they are infallible, life will become unbearable. Near in the end of the play, Macbeth himself sighs with weariness at the life he has created. It is a brief flicker of reality that comes too late to act upon:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 24-28)

Macbeth is a work that all leaders would benefit from studying and remembering, both as a warning and a reminder to create a world worth living in.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Santa’s Customer Survey

What an exciting time of year! Yes, it’s exciting because it’s Christmastime and all, but it’s also because we’re doing something we’ve never done before. You’re probably asking, “What could a worldly and sophisticated fellow like Santa Claus never have done before?” Why, implement a customer survey, that’s what.

I admit it sounds a little odd. Santa brings joy and happiness, right? Right! That’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years. I had a 110% customer satisfaction rating. Not that I actually asked anyone, it was just one of those things I knew. Everybody knew. Santa Claus topped the JD Power list before J.D. Power was even born.

Lately things have changed, though. People are so demanding. Gimme, gimme, gimme! I blame it on video games and a lack of exercise. We’ve even started getting complaints. That’s right, complaints. Who on Earth would file a complaint against Santa Claus? Crazy, right? Well, it has happened more times than I would like to admit. I’ve heard it all: “I didn’t get what I wanted,” “The toys seemed cheap,” “It didn’t come with batteries,” “I wanted money,” “Jewelry is what really grates my cheese.” I even got a complaint from a guy who said I didn’t leave a present for his girlfriend, and he was married to someone else! I’m telling you, people have gone nuts. Nuts or not, they’re my customers. That’s the bottom line.

So, complaints were becoming an ugly fact of life at the North Pole. My head elf, Horatio, and I were sorting through complaints one night when he said something that really grabbed my attention.

“Handling complaints is a mug’s game, old man,” Horatio said. “We need to get ahead of the curve.”

I set down my mug of eggnog and squinted at the little devil. “What are you talking about?” I growled.

That’s when Horatio gave me one of my most important lessons of my long life. He said we’d never succeed just by trying to deal with complaints. We needed to be proactive. When I heard that, I felt like busting him into Saint Patty’s Day. After all, I’m the King of Proactive. How could I possibly pull off Christmas Eve without being proactive? Gimme a break. But I had to admit that I wasn’t proactive when it came to customer feedback. I assumed that everyone who didn’t complain was satisfied. Horatio said that for every complaint we received, there were probably hundreds of other people who had a complaint, but didn’t bother to tell us about it. He said that we needed to reach out to our customers and find out what they thought, and take action on their perceptions before they ever had a chance to complain. At first, all this MBA mumbo-jumbo just made me mad.

“I’m Santa Claus!” I bellowed. “Isn’t that good enough?”

Horatio looked me dead in the eye and said, “The Easter Bunny is kicking our butts. Heck, even the Tooth Fairy is gaining ground on us.”

It turns out that these jokers already had customer surveys and focus groups. And their objective was overtaking us in customer loyalty and brand recognition! We had targets on our backs and I didn’t even know it.

We had to act fast. Horatio and I made plans to begin working on a survey the very next morning. We convened my Executive Elf Council at 8 o’clock sharp. The first thing we did was brainstorm service attributes that our customers cared about most. Horatio cautioned us that we couldn’t ask about every possible service attribute. If we did, we would end up with a 100 question survey that nobody would bother to complete. We had to focus our survey questions on the few important drivers of customer satisfaction. The trick would be identifying these few important drivers.
The elves brainstormed dozens of issues related to customer satisfaction. The issues ran the gamut from my rosy cheeks to where the reindeer relieved themselves. I counted up the ideas and was dismayed to find that we had brainstormed over 60 issues. Clearly, not all of these were created equal; we would need to prioritize. Horatio led us through a voting exercise whereby each elf had three votes to assign to what they believe were the three most important issues. And guess what? Nobody could agree on what were the most important! The votes were all over the map and we hadn’t succeeded in prioritizing anything. What did you expect from a pack of elves? We were at a standstill.

"Let’s take a break,” Horatio said. “Everybody get up and stretch your legs. We’ll reconvene in ten minutes.”

The break was a good idea, as it relieved a lot of tension. Have you ever seen a North Pole elf get tense and frustrated? It’s an ugly thing, I promise you. I spend at least half my time dealing with elf problems. After everyone had cleared out of the conference room, Horatio called me over.

“It’s time to use some data,” he said. “Do you still have all the letters sent to you from children?”

“Of course,” I said. “They’re in the big file cabinet in my office.”

“Great. Give me a hand,” Horatio said.

We carried 2 years worth of letters to Santa into the conference room. When all the elves had returned from the break, Horatio divided us into 5 groups. Each group was given a stack of letters. The task was to scan through each letter and see if it included any feedback. Most of the letters just asked for things, of course, but a few included some ideas for improvement. We tallied up the feedback and consolidated them into categories. Once we did this, the most important drivers of customer satisfaction became clear:
• Jolliness
• Generosity
• Communication
• Santa’s lap

That last one seemed a little strange, but it came directly from our customers. I guess that’s the value of using real data to develop your survey, instead of just guessing at what your customers care about. Horatio said we could easily create a survey based on these satisfaction drivers. He suggested a simple question followed by a four-point scale. The scale would represent the best and worst possible responses on each end, with two additional points at equal intervals in between the extremes.

“Santa, would you care to use your poetic wit to create some survey questions for us?” Horatio asked.

“It would be my pleasure,” I said.

Within a few minutes I had dashed off four concise questions:
• How would you rate Santa’s overall mood?
• Did Santa give you everything you wanted?
• How easy was it for you to communicate with Santa?
• Did you sit on Santa’s lap this year? If yes, how would you describe the experience?

All the elves agreed that the questions accurately represented the four main issues. The elves, led by Horatio, developed a customized scale for each question. We all smiled with a sense of accomplishment. I was just about to suggest a big bowl of eggnog, when Horatio said, “We’re not quite finished.”

You should have heard the chorus of boos and catcalls that rose up from that motley gang of elves. I thought I was going to have to spray them down with a garden hose, when Horatio soothed everyone with a wave of his hand.

“Calm down,” he said. “It’s no big deal. We just need a couple of open-ended questions to put at the end of the survey.”

Horatio explained that no matter how good a job we did at identifying the key drivers of customer satisfaction, we didn’t address everything. There were bound to be some issues that customers cared dearly about and which weren’t even on our radar screen. A couple of open-ended questions would enable customers to add anything that they thought was important to them. Horatio suggested two simple questions along the lines of “What did you like most” and “What did you like least.” They sounded fine to me. My cyber elf typed up the whole survey, which stretched to a whopped three quarters of a page long. Nice and tight, as I like to say.

I told Horatio that we would mail it out right after the first of the year, using the addresses in my Rolodex. Horatio just laughed. He said we needed to use technology: our website, email, virtual focus groups. It would be cheaper, easier, and faster. Horatio said we didn’t have the luxury of time, and from what I saw from these complaints I believed him. We needed to make improvements now.

The first of our electronic surveys have gone out and we’re already getting some great feedback. Review of customer feedback is one of the key agenda items during our weekly North Pole staff meeting. We go over each survey, discussing what people like and don’t like. At first I wanted to take action on every single comment. That’s when Horatio pulled back the reins.

“Whoa there, big boy,” he said. “Let’s focus on the important few, not the trivial many.”

Turns out that Horatio had been reading a W. Edwards Deming book. Now I’m reading it. If you want to know anything about the Pareto principle, you just talk to your ol’ friend Santa Claus. I’ll get you squared away.

Anyway, we prioritize our feedback and select at least one issue to take action on at every staff meeting. A team is assembled to come up with an improvement plan. We track process improvements through our corrective and preventive action system. That’s another new thing we developed. It’s just a simple database that applies project management to problem solving and process improvement. We enter the issue into our system, assign a champion, appoint team members, agree on a due date, and track the action all the way to completion. At the beginning of each staff meeting, we review open corrective and preventive actions. When elves and reindeer know that I’m going to hold them accountable, our improvements never slip through the cracks. A good dose of follow-up always ensures success.

Of course, anything that looks or smells like a complaint jumps to the front of the line. We handle complaints immediately like we always have. The difference now is that complaints aren’t the only tool we use for feedback. We’re addressing perceptions long before they have a chance to turn into complaints. Complaints are an important feedback tool for our customers, but the proactive feedback we’re capturing on our survey is even more important. It’s the engine that drives our improvement machine.

You’re probably wondering about the improvements we’ve made, and I don’t blame you. Here are just a few:
• I now attend jolliness refresher training, just to sharpen my game. I don’t want anybody to say I wasn’t jolly, dammit.
• I’ve established a toll free phone number that is staffed with elves 24/7. This should make it easier for kids to get in touch with me.
• We repainted my Santa Throne a nice white color, like vanilla ice cream. I learned that the fire engine red throne was intimidating to some children.

I can’t tell you how much we’ve learned from our survey. One of the many valuable lessons is that customer sometimes have unreasonable expectations of what Santa can and will do. We’ve begun a PR campaign to calibrate expectations. When our customers know up-front what to expect, they tend to be much happier in the long run. For example, we’ve had to educate people that Santa does not bring money, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns, or items of a sexual nature. This is a kid’s program, for goodness sake! You would think that people would have a little common sense, but you know how that goes. We explicitly state our limitations right on the website for all the world to see. Just click on the tab that says, “Stuff that Santa Doesn’t Bring.”

Another thing Santa doesn’t do is bring presents to naughty people. Trust me, I know who’s been naughty. We have some state-of-the-art technology that can detect naughtiness from half way around the world. Horatio pointed out that the term “naughty” was a bit vague. Now we clearly define the actions that could lead to a judgment of naughty. There are no surprises, but here are just a few to give you a flavor for what Santa doesn’t appreciate:
• Cruelty to animals or children
• Lying
• Cheating
• Stealing
• Relying on others to do what you should do yourself
• Voting Democratic

Ho, ho, ho! That last one was a joke. Don’t anybody get bent out of shape; Santa has a right to be funny every now and then. The lowdown is we have a list, so if you want a present from Santa don’t be naughty. And don’t send me an email asking for sex toys or a big fat spliff. Even asking for these things can get you bumped into the category of naughty.

We have even more plans for next year. My idea is to leave a little comment card in every stocking. The card will ask everyone to go to my website (with parental supervision, of course) and leave feedback online. Before Christmas Day is even half-over, we’ll have thousands of feedback entries. Horatio is going to write a computer program that slice and dice the feedback in every imaginable way. He has all kinds of wild ideas for statistical analysis, but I told him, “Santa wants it simple. Give it to me in pictures, little fellow.” So Horatio also plans on boiling the trends into some simple charts and graphs that even an old fat man in a red suit can understand.

So, would you like to see our customer survey? I would value your comments on it. We’re constantly trying to fine-tune our feedback tool so we get the right information. We could ask 100 questions, but the key to success is keeping it short and sweet. Let us know what you think, and of course feel free to provide some feedback on my performance in general. Like our Quality Policy says, we’re dedicated to providing a profound, positive, and memorable Christmas experience, while continually improving our performance. Those aren’t just words on the North Pole conference room, they’re the beliefs we live by. Oh, and if you leave cookies for me this year, please note that I’m especially partial to Do-Si-Dos from the Girl Scouts. Leave out a plate of those babies and I might just overlook some naughtiness!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Product Certification: Developing Meaningful Programs

Product certifications have exploded in recent years. Products ranging from pine lumber to children’s toys carry some sort of certification, and the organizations issuing certifications are as diverse as the products themselves. What are the practical values of these certifications? What are the pitfalls and limitations? In this article I will explore these issues and propose some recommendations for a product certification program that is meaningful and helpful to consumers and producers alike.

The changing marketplace

The variety and sophistication of products that are available to the general public has exploded in the last half century. Products that would have been considered extravagant or even unimaginable are now commonplace, available day or night at the local big-box retailer, or delivered by a brown UPS truck. Automation of manufacturing methods and the reduction of variability have driven down product costs, and improvements in logistics have moved products to consumers in every corner of the world. The range of manufactured goods has never been broader or more impressive.

With the increase of product variety and sophistication, consumers have more exposure to information about product attributes, performance properties, and potential dangers. The growth of information technology and the increased velocity of the news media has helped educate consumers, establishing an awareness of what products can and should do under conditions of actual use.

Risks that were once unknown or well-concealed are now widely communicated. The communication of risks runs the gamut from scientifically verifiable to the blatantly fabricated. Most consumers don’t possess the technical background to discriminate between the real and the imagined; they only know that a product is reported to have risks and this perception affects purchasing behavior.

Another factor that influences consumer behavior is the litigious nature of society in the United States. If a product doesn't perform as expected or causes injurious results, civil action may be brought to redress losses. Lawsuits may be filed against the designer, manufacturer, distributor, or seller of the product, often with the only consideration being who has the deepest pockets. Information about products risks or dangers, even if inaccurate, can form the basis for legal action. Lawsuit judgments frequently run in the millions of dollars and outcomes of this sort can easily destroy a company.

Consumer behavior aside, some products carry with them inherent and irrefutable risks. Aircraft components and parts must be certified to ensure their reliable performance over defined time frames. Any product failure while in flight can have disastrous consequences, so the product’s performance must be known with a high degree of certainty. Other products have similar safety risks. Notable examples include electrical appliances, children’s toys, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. Many of the programs associated with known safety risks are administered by government agencies on behalf of the public.

Safety is not the only concern of consumers. Other concerns span the range of human emotions and interests, and they vary greatly from person to person and from region to region. These include the following, to name just a few:

• Environmental impact
• Exploitation of workers and social responsibility
• Exploitation of animals and animal testing
• Energy efficiency
• Use of renewable energy
• Material reutilization and use of recycled components
• Antimicrobial effectiveness
• Recyclability at end of product life
• Ergonomic performance
• Sustainable production processes

In the past, a product simply had to do what it was supposed to do. Expectations of products are much more demanding and complex now. Consumers come to the marketplace armed with a baffling array of concerns and agendas, and producers are left with the challenge of choosing the battles that will lead to reduced risk and long term success.

Product certification with credibility

In response to consumer concerns, producers have embraced the use of product certification systems. These systems provide assurance that a product possesses certain qualities about which consumers and stakeholders feel strongly. There are literally thousands of different product certifications representing almost every imaginable product attribute. The challenge for the consumer is know what makes a credible certification. After all, consumers make important product choices that affect their family’s health and welfare, so they need to be informed about certification claims. One certification seal looks just as official as any other; the magic is knowing what lies behind the seal.

There are five main elements that comprise a credible product certification program:

• Openness
• Objectivity
• Quality management system
• Competent personnel
• Accreditation

Let’s examine each one of these and discuss what they mean in practical terms.


This is exactly what it sounds like: equal and open access to the product certification. A reputable certification scheme must be available to all organizations that produce the applicable products. The certification can’t be contingent on financial inducements, group memberships, or geographical location. The certification should be available to all products that meet the certification criteria, and any organization can apply. This can be contrasted with the following examples:

Join our club. “Sure, you can apply for product certification, but you have to become one of us first. Join our club, pay the dues, support our causes, and we’ll certify your product.” A scheme of this sort has nothing to do with the product attributes and everything to do with building a membership base in an organization.

Pay to play. It is entirely reasonable for a certification body to charge application fees and recover its product testing costs. Nothing in the world is free, and even nonprofit organizations need to develop a revenue stream. What is not reasonable is to require payoffs to obtain certification. Pay-to-play systems like this have no technical merit and exist only to line the pockets of the certifying body.

Only locals need apply. Some product certifications exist as a form of boosterism for a country’s products. Boosting a country’s products is a role of economic development agencies and public relations firms, not product certification. Product certifications that are contingent on geographical location are inherently closed to many products that might otherwise apply.


Objectivity is the cousin of openness. Objectivity means that all products are treated the same way with regard to certification. The same criteria are applied to everybody, and all products are evaluated in the same manner. One of the biggest things that compromises objectivity is money. When the product certification scheme exists solely as a way to make money for the certification body, then you can be sure that the scheme is not objective. Here are some common examples of nonobjective product certification systems:

In-house certification. Companies occasionally develop certification programs for their own products. No other products need apply. How could a scheme like this be considered objective? It isn’t. Nobody certifying its own products can maintain any level of objectivity or impartiality. It’s analogous to judging your own child in a talent contest.

Take my advice. “So, you’d like to obtain certification? Let us help you! We not only grant certification, we offer consulting and advice for companies working in that direction. If you sign up for our consulting program, we feel confident that your products will pass certification.” A product certification like this is nothing more than a back door to selling services. There’s no objectivity, because naturally the certification body is going to favor the products for which it has provided services. A reputable certification body never offers consulting or assistance to organizations seeking product certification.

Quality management system

A credible certification body will have a functioning and effective quality management system (QMS). This system will include written procedures that guide its operations, defined responsibilities and authorities for personnel, clear criteria for certification, and systematic improvement processes. The point is that the certification body should manage itself in a controlled and methodical manner. There’s little credibility in a certification granted by an organization that can’t get its own act together. A quality management system based on ISO 9001 or ISO Guide 65 is recommended, and the certification body should consider having its QMS certified by an independent third party. Some of the symptoms of a certification body that does not have an effective QMS include the following:

• Delays in testing and certification decision
• Lost records and applications
• Misplaced product samples
• Problems that don’t get corrected
• Internal confusion and repeat errors
• Unreceptive to customer feedback
• Inconsistent criteria for product certification

One of the most valuable questions that can be asked of a certification body is, “What is your own quality management system based upon?” If the response is one of confusion, then you can be sure that there is no quality management system in place and the certification scheme might be a sham.

Competent personnel

For a certification body to have any credibility, it must be staffed by personnel who are technically competent in the area of the certification. This type of competency can’t be farmed out to other organizations. Essential in-house competencies include an understanding of the following:

• The product and its features
• Customer requirements and expectations
• Possible product failures and shortcomings
• Legal and regulatory issues applicable to the product

In short, the certification body is staffed with experts in the product. It is possible for the certification body to subcontract the product testing, but it can’t subcontract the technical competence of its people.

The certification body should have established requirements for the competency of its personnel, training on a defined basis, evaluation of effectiveness, and records of training. Only through the training of its personnel and continually maintaining their competencies can a certification body reliably make decisions on product certification.


Finally, a certification body should accredit its product certification scheme. The most widely applied accreditation criteria is defined in the international standard ISO/IEC Guide 65—“General requirements for bodies operating product certification systems.” Accreditation to ISO/IEC Guide 65 is granted by independent third-party organizations who themselves have demonstrated the ability to evaluate other certification bodies in a consistent and fair manner.

Many of the attributes recommended by this article would be difficult for a consumer to verify at a certification body, but one question will generally captures the spirit of all of them: “Is your product certification system accredited to ISO Guide 65?” Failure to go the final step and accredit the product certification system means a cloud hangs over any products certified by that body.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Fail Your Customers with the 5 Whys

So you have a customer complaint. It’s not just any complaint, but a huge one from your biggest customer. The problem affects millions of dollars in business and threatens the survival of your company. Are you going to take action? Of course! You put together a team of top players and attack it head-on.

Team members investigate the problem and perform a detailed 5-Why analysis. They start with the problem statement and ask, “Why did that happen?” repeatedly, drilling down deeper with each iteration:

Problem: There were seven data errors in reports issued to our largest customer in the last month

• Why? Because lab reports are getting in the wrong project folders.

• Why? Because the project numbers are written illegibly on the folders.

• Why? Because the customer service representatives are rushed when preparing folders.

• Why? Because there are only two representatives taking calls for all divisions.

• Why? Because business expanded rapidly in the past year and management neglected to re-examine the work load of the customer service representatives.

After 5 Whys, the team has found what it believes to be the root cause of the problem: customer service representatives who are overworked. The team takes action to remove the root cause, which is the addition of a third customer service representative. A person is quickly transferred and trained, and the action is deemed effective by objective observers. A pizza lunch follows, including a congratulatory address by the president of the company. A week later, three more reports have data errors in them. Your company is dropped by its largest customer. Everybody was certain the problem solving was effective, but it obviously wasn’t. What happened?

Why the 5 Whys alone don’t work

Asking why one time after another assumes that the problem is perfectly linear, with one cause directly related to another. If we keep asking “why?” we’ll eventually get back to the root cause. However, real problems are much more complex than this. One cause does not always lead directly to another cause. There are contributing factors and hidden variables that mess up our ingenious chain of causes. If we try to treat every problem as nothing more than the result of a single chain of causes, we’ll miss the complexity that exists in the process.

The other reason that the 5 Whys is ineffective is that it focuses only on today’s causes. People enter the problem-solving process by asking, “In this exact problem that occurred, what was the chain of causes that led to it?” The 5 Whys ignore the causes of tomorrow. For problem solving to be truly effective, we can’t only consider the causes we know about now. We’ve got to consider the potential causes of tomorrow. The 5 Whys will expose some of the current causes, but it will rarely reveal potential causes. We need to consider the entire universe of causes: actual and potential, present and future, large and small, obvious and elusive. The key to uncovering this is gaining an understanding of the process that produces the problem.

Understand the process first, and then ask why

To address customer complaints in a thoughtful way, we must achieve an intimate understanding of our process. I don’t mean what the process should be; I mean what the process actually is. Whatever process is involved in the complaint must be described, step by step, as it is actually happening now. Existing procedures may not be much help to us in this regard. Procedures often describe how a process is supposed to operate, without any obstacles, surprises, errors, or creativity on the part of employees, but the world deals up all of these things on a regular basis.

Put away your procedure when investigating a complaint. Instead, assemble a team of people intimately knowledgeable about the process. The people you want are the ones who actually do the work and get their hands dirty. Utilize people from different perspectives: production, quality, engineering, logistics, and purchasing. Managers should be represented also, but their perspective is often woefully uninformed about the tasks and activities taking place.

Explain to your team that you’re working to address a complaint and you need to understand the process that results in the complaint. The team will create a flowchart for the process as it actually exists. This will lead to an exploration of causes, but only after we’ve gained an understanding of the process from start to finish. Here are the supplies you’ll need to facilitate a session:

• Flip chart

• Markers

• Large sticky notes

Plan on keeping your flowchart exercise very simple. Fancy symbols won’t help you understand your process any better. In fact, the only “symbol” you’ll use will be large sticky notes. Also, avoid the temptation to use a laptop computer or other electronic device to help you construct the flowchart. Creating the flowchart on a flip chart will enable all team members to crowd around and personally contribute to the process. You don’t want to introduce any barriers to the creative process. Computers, by their nature, relegate the majority of team members to observers, which is the opposite of what you want.

If possible, tell team members a day or two in advance that they’ll be making a flowchart for the process. Ask them to think about the various tasks, activities, and decisions that are part of the process. This way they’ll be well-prepared when the session begins and the team will use its time more efficiently.

Here are the key steps to constructing a flowchart that we can use in problem solving:

Determine boundaries. Decide on starting and stopping points for the flowchart, and keep in mind that many problems originate on the periphery of the process. Make your starting point far enough upstream in the process to capture the early planning and logistics steps. Likewise, make the stopping point far enough downstream that you capture inspection, storage, and follow-up steps.

Identify each step in the process. Beginning at our assigned starting point, identify the first step (task and decision) of the process. Write this on a large sticky note, writing only as many words as will fit. Continue doing this sequentially for each step in the process. Decide if each is a task or a decision, and put a “T” or a “D” in the lower right-hand corner of the sticky note to indicate this. It’s also helpful to write the decision steps in the form of a question to fully differentiate them from the task steps. Encourage participation and dynamic discussion of the process as a team. Anybody who attempts to dominate the process should be gently reminded to allow everyone to take part.

Arrange the steps in order. Determine the sequential order of the tasks and begin placing them on the flip chart. The first step will go at the top, with subsequent steps flowing downward. As the team begins assembling the flowchart with the sticky notes, forgotten tasks and decisions almost always spring to mind. That’s the point of using sticky notes--they can be easily moved. Add new tasks as necessary and rearrange existing tasks until everybody agrees that the flowchart accurately represents the process.

Connect the steps with arrows. Connect the tasks and decisions with arrows, indicating the flow of the process. Each task has a single arrow exiting it. Each decision has two arrows exiting it, with each arrow representing a different decision outcome. Make sure to label the arrows that exit the decision boxes indicating which answer to the decision outcome that they represent. The most common labels for decision arrows are yes and no, although they can be labeled with anything that makes sense in reference to the decision required by the decision box.

Check for accuracy. No matter what kinds of preparations are made or how smart the team members are, there are bound to be errors with a flowchart. When the team is finished constructing the flowchart, verify it by “walking the process.” Take your flowchart to where the work is actually being done and check that you haven’t forgotten any steps or made errors in sequencing. Make corrections as necessary.

Identify causes

The big benefit of starting with a flowchart is that it forces us to consider the entire process, not just the parts that we know best or are most likely to be involved. The team can now begin to identify the actual and potential causes that occur at each step of the process. Start at the top of the flow diagram and brainstorm what could possibly go wrong and lead to our customer complaint. Instruct the team members to think about the following possibilities at each step:

• Mistakes that can be made

• Confusing tasks

• Incomplete instructions

• Conflicting goals

• Communication barriers

• Anything else that can go wrong

Cast a wide net as you speculate on causes. Hunches are OK, and no proof is needed. The spirit of this is the same as brainstorming: All ideas are treated as potentially significant, without criticism. Write each of the potential causes on the flowchart next to the steps to which they apply.

Another way to think about causes is to call them failures. Ask the question, “What failures could lead to our customer complaint?” Whether they’re called causes or failures doesn’t really matter. The point is be to as inclusive as possible, taking a full inventory of what could go wrong at each step of the process as it actually exists. At the end of the exercise, your team will have identified dozens of potential causes. Now it’s time to narrow the field.

Narrow the causes to the most significant

It’s unlikely that you have the resources to act on all the actual and potential causes. That’s why you have to narrow your focus. One of the easiest ways to do this is through a multiple-voting process. Each person on the team is assigned four votes to use for what he or she believes to be the most significant causes. Team members can cast their votes anyway they wish: placing one vote on each of four separate causes, placing two votes on two causes, whatever they decide. Choose a colored marker that is different from the ones used for constructing the flowchart and writing the causes. The votes can be cast as check marks beside the causes to which they relate.

After all votes are cast, the facilitator will tally up the number of votes for each cause. You’re going to take action on not one root cause, but on a number of significant causes that contribute to the complaint in question. How many causes should the team act on? There’s no magic number, but taking action on five to seven causes for relatively obvious problems and 10 or more causes for complex problems seems to work well. List the top causes, as indicated by the number of votes they received, on a separate flip chart. It’s helpful at this point to allow a brief discussion on each of the top causes. The facilitator can begin this by saying, “Who would like to say a few words about this cause?” The point is to bring everyone up to speed on each of the top causes. This builds a richer understanding of the causes and creates a basis for taking action.

Plan and implement action

Now we come to the most important step of all--action. Each of our top causes must be matched with an action that will remove it or reduce it to an acceptable level. The team will consider each cause in turn and agree on an action for it. Here are the specific variables that should be identified:

• Action to be taken. Be as specific as possible in defining the action to be taken.

• Responsible party. Who will lead the implementation of the action? Preferably, each action should be assigned to someone who has participated in the problem-solving session. Team members are invested in the process, due to their involvement up to this point, and they have an understanding of the process variables.

• Required resources. List the money, people, supplies, time, and other resources that will be required to carry out each action.

• Expected completion date. State when the team believes that the action can be completed. Because you’re striving to assign actions to team members, you can get commitment from each responsible party on the completion date.

Agree on a date when the team will reconvene and review the progress on action items. Let it be known that top management will be present during the review meeting. This will highlight the importance of making progress on the assigned actions. Team members don’t want to appear remiss in front of their peers, but they’re mortified to appear remiss in front of top management. Visibility and accountability ensure that nobody drops the ball.

Keep your customer abreast of the progress you’re making on the complaint. Because the actions were triggered by customer feedback, it only makes sense to provide some feedback of your own. “Here’s what we’re doing to improve our service to you,” sends a powerful message. It also cements the organization’s commitment to follow-through on the actions being implemented. The ultimate result of the entire process I’ve described is to create customer loyalty. Focusing on the entire process when attacking customer complaints, instead of just asking 5 Whys, will achieve this.