"If Toyota doesn’t look like an innovative company it’s only because our definition of innovation — cool new products and technological breakthroughs, by Steve Jobs-like visionaries — is far too narrow. Toyota’s innovations, by contrast, have focused on process rather than on product, on the factory floor rather than on the showroom. That has made those innovations hard to see. But it hasn’t made them any less powerful."
- James Surowiecki
I like thinking about Toyota and innovation, because they have many characteristics that are challenging for companies, such as:
- a large workforce
- huge, embedded infrastructure costs
- subject to the vagaries of commodity price swings
- highly regulated industry at national and international levels
- highly competitive market, and getting worse every year
- mature industry
- well-known, well-established product category
- not a digital product, and unlikely to be part of the free-conomy any time soon
These are structural challenges that most of my clients have to deal with. They are not Apple, and not Google. This is a company that has all the problems above, and yet has brought their ability to manage steady progress to an art form.
In fact, at senior levels, the real work is on the meta-task of improving their improving.
Any of us can learn from this discipline. We can challenge ourselves to make daily small improvements to systems and practices. We can stop settling. Stop settling on small stuff today, and you'll be surprised at the energy this gives you to push at bigger problems.
In managing customer experience, a lot of settling goes on. Small things are assumed to be too small to matter to customers, and so they are allowed to go on. Here's a few that immediately come to mind:
- We only open one side of the double doors in the morning, leaving customers to push into a locked door for the rest of the day
- We don't worry that there aren't enough places to hang all the clothes in the change-room
- We excuse the fact that the print is too small to read
- We post signs telling people if they park there for more than 15 minutes, we can tow their car
- We leave people on hold with a steady stream of advertising in their ear, while reminding them that we really care
In a number of years of consulting on customer experience, I have been involved in presenting recommendations to clients. There are usually some that are easy to implement. I mean REALLY easy. Like making your parking signs friendlier. And there are some that are much more difficult, like reorganizing work roles. Clients almost never implement the easy stuff, even when they agree it's a good idea. And they often make a pretty half-hearted effort on the difficult stuff, expecting great results in a month or two.
For example -- pets are important to people. So make your premises pet friendly. Put a water bowl out in the good weather. Have a tie-up zone outside the front door. You could even put out a colorful mat that says something like, "for our favorite customers". But many organizations don't bother with these small things. They want the great leap forward. After which they plan to coast again.
Many organizations can't even be bothered to copy obviously good ideas that the competition generated.
With customer experience, however, there are rarely great leaps. It's a game of inches, not Hail Mary passes. Oddly enough, you complete more long passes when you are really good at the inches. And Toyota is a good example of that, too.
A great short article in The New Yorker about how Toyota stays on top and keeps relentlessly pushing ahead: The Open Secret of Success, by James Surowiecki (May 12, 2008 edition). Brought to my attention by one of my favorite daily scans, Marketing Daily, from MediaPost.