“The essence of strategy lies in creating tomorrow’s competitive advantages faster that competitors can mimic the ones you possess today.”
Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad
I guess there are a variety of reasons why the traffic authorities are using more and more of those average speed monitors.
And I’d bet the main one is because they work better than anything else! Single speed cameras do have the effect of slowing traffic down at the points they are installed. But drivers then speed up when they are passed them. I do and I guess you do too. However, average speed monitors know what speed drivers are travelling at for the whole distance they cover. And that creates the desired effect of slowing traffic down for the full distance.
It's the same with attempts to improve things, like service, in any business. You could choose to do it haphazardly, whenever and wherever it's felt necessary, like the odd speed camera. That will make a difference, at the time or point that it's done but that's all. So just as with average speed monitors, if you want to make a worthwhile, lasting difference, what matters most is the overall speed or pace of improvement.
Pace is, I believe, the crucial factor. That’s because, if you think about it, so long as your pace in anything is greater than those you wish to beat, no matter where you are, leading at the front or trailing at the back, having the fastest overall place will ensure you will remain in or eventually take the lead. So if you want to be recognised as the service leader in your market, town, sector, or whatever, a key element of that success will be your pace of service improvement.
So, having established how important pace is to sustainable success, the next question is how to develop and then maintain a pace of improvement that will outperform all competitors. I suggest there are three vital elements to consider if you want to do this – principles and beliefs, systems and processes and tools and techniques.
Principles and beliefs
1. The first and key principle is that everything can always be improved. The often-quoted adage, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it", is in my view a stupid statement. The Japanese have a much more sensible phrase which is KaiZen. It means 'good change'. Improvements in service, no matter how small, are all a good change and should therefore be considered as a key objective for everyone in any organisation.
2. This leads to the second key principle, which is that it should be everyone's responsibility to engage in this. No departments or individuals should be excluded or allowed to think it doesn't apply to them. It's all or nothing if success is to be maximised. So ensure that everyone knows they can influence the customers’ perception of service and has the objective of finding and implementing ways to continually improve.
3. The third principle hinges on where to look for the best ideas for change. People often believe that the best approach to continuous improvement is to keep a keen eye on competitors. It's true that in any business, it's important to know what competitors are up to. But I don't think they should be the key focus. The phrase I like is 'look, but don't stare'. If you spend too much time and resources tracking competitors you will tend to ignore or not look hard enough at what should be your main focus, which is your customers. I'm reminded of something I once heard Terry Leahy of TESCO say at a presentation he did for Manchester Business School: "When we stopped chasing our competitors and started chasing our customers, we thrashed the competitors."
I think that makes great sense. Of course you need to know what your competitors are doing, but that should be considered as merely 'background noise'. Your main focus should be your customers – their needs, aspirations, thoughts and feelings. So they are where to look to learn what you need to do, how important it is, how urgent it is, and therefore what your pace of improvement needs to be.
Systems and processes
1. The first and most important system is a customer feedback system. As I’ve already explained, this is how you learn where and what improvements are necessary and how urgent they are. My experience has shown that the best customer feedback systems are event driven. By this I mean they are not done just once or maybe twice a year. Such feedback is useful but it's not often enough to tell you all you need to know or to drive a winning pace of improvement. The ideal system will trigger feedback every time a significant event happens, like say an order being placed, or a delivery being made or a fault being fixed or a complaint being handled. Such feedback will create a continuous stream of valuable timely information. And if you then also have an effective system to analyse this information and get the results to the people that can act on it, this will be a driver of continuous improvement, probably with pace.
2. An effective external benchmarking system should also trigger worthwhile improvements. Many organisations do this by looking at what their competitors are doing. That's OK but I'm convinced that the best ideas rarely come from competitors. Surely the goal is not be as good as competitors – it's to be better. So I believe you should be looking for the best performers on any subject you're interested in, no matter what industry they're from. You should then be able to work out how to introduce their winning techniques into your organisation. Done well, that will get you ahead of the competitors.
3. The last system worth a mention is an Experimentation system. By this I mean a systematic approach to the trial and error processes necessary to develop new and better ways of working. In any such system, where you're stepping into the unknown and trying what's not been tried before, these trials will inevitably generate more error than success. But if you do it right and stick at it, the few breakthroughs that result should be worth all the mistakes and dead ends that led to them. This too will then stimulate pace.
Tools and techniques
There are many tools and techniques that could be used to create a winning pace. The following three are in my view the ones that when merged make the biggest difference.
1. Aspiration – Gary Hamel from London Business School is great for one-line quotes that contain real wisdom and make you think. There’s one at the beginning of this paper, and here’s another: 'No company outperforms its aspirations'.
I think it’s vital to set your aspirations high. Not just good but great. Not just best in class but world class. This can also be done with pace. You should be aiming for not just the fastest pace in your sector – you want the fastest pace of improvement possible.
2. Positivity - Shawn Achor is a psychologist working at Harvard Business School. He is one of the Worlds most knowledgeable people on the subject and effects of Positivity. His TED presentation about this has now had almost eight million viewings. The key point he makes, which relates to this subject of pace, is that we always have a choice about how we view anything. He calls it the lens through which we view the world. Put simply, whether we view things with a positive, neutral or negative attitude, is a mental choice we make. However, the lens we choose will influence not only our own outcomes and life but also those of the people around us.
It’s, therefore, important to choose a positive lens for this. Things will go wrong and you can’t ignore them but the main focus needs to be on what’s gone right. Some things will not work and they too can’t be ignored but focus more intently on what does work. You can and should look for fault to eliminate it but you should look harder for success and find ways to spread it.
3. Celebrations – A deep principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated and celebrating success is a very important element for creating and sustaining a winning pace. This is something that we’re not generally very good at in business in the UK but if you want to keep up enthusiasm, energy and therefore pace you need to create simple techniques to celebrate all successes.
So there you have it – a few ideas about pace. It is pain: all new things are hard to get started and can cause some pain to begin with, for example, just try adopting a new golf swing! It’s pleasure: there’s something very satisfying in knowing that you’re the one to watch but impossible to catch. And it’s power: if you can create the winning pace of improvement you will have the power to attract and keep the profitable customers you want. I want to end with something I’ve mentioned before in another paper but is worth a second mention here.
Throughout this paper I made reference to the concept of continuous improvement. I think within it there are two other powerful types of improvement. The first is what I call conspicuous improvement. This means doing it in a way that customers will notice and love. You want them to be forever wondering what next? So they will be looking forward to their next purchase experiences, excitedly knowing that in some way it will be better than their last.
The second I call combative improvement. This means also doing it in a way that competitors will notice and hate. You want them also to be forever wondering what next? But in their case dreading discovering it, demoralised by the knowledge that it will in some way have moved you even further ahead of them. These are yet two more powerful examples of how a winning pace of improvement can cause pain for competitors and pleasure for you and your customers.
About the author: Chris Daffy is a Companion of the Institute of Customer Service, a member of the ICS Editorial Board and founder of The Academy of Service Excellence.