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.