If It Weren’t for Those Pesky Customers, Mr. Dell

June 29, 2010

In the NYT’s article this week about Dell’s recent decline, what struck me most was how far Dell had strayed from its original obsession with customers.  My sense had always been that Dell’s  low-cost fanaticism was in many ways similar to Wal-Mart’s — their mission was to deliver the absolutely lowest prices, so they were willing to work like crazy, and perhaps even torment their suppliers to get there.

But the details in this article, including a cover-up of faulty motherboards and evasive maneuvering with customers, is completely at odds with that genesis.  If true — and the article makes a pretty compelling case — then Dell would be following in a long tradition of organizations that stumble when they start to view customers as obstacles to their own corporate performance.

Dell became Dell for its operational excellence in the service of customers.  The company ushered in a whole new way of serving by delivering variety, speed, and prices that had never before been seen in its industry.  It was truly revolutionary.  And truly focused on end users.  But something different, and not that uncommon, seems to have happened in recent years:  Dell began to find itself more interesting than its customers.

It’s as if companies like Dell wake up one day, excited and surprised by what they’ve become, and start suffering from the self-distraction of a teenager.  They’ve gone from boy to man, and it’s heady stuff.  And the media fawning and magazine covers make it that much more difficult to resist themselves.  Along the way they seem to forget that what made them great was their customers.  In Dell’s case, it was the relentless and creative focus on finding better ways to serve them.

But like a nagging parent, Dell’s customers were eventually treated like a drag on the company’s bright, shiny future.  My advice to Dell management — and to any other company on a similar ride — is to have some respect, remember where you came from and make customers the center of your universe again.  The correction shouldn’t be that hard for Dell.  Looking up to customers is in their corporate genes.


The Beginning of the End at AT&T

May 24, 2010

In an incredible announcement, AT&T declared that it will be raising its termination fee for iPhones and a few other devices from $175 to $325.  The company offers some explanatory chatter about handset subsidies, but the real message it’s sending is that it’s simply done trying to win over customers.  Rather than keeping us the old fashioned way, by creating and sustaining real value, AT&T is now just charging us a ransom to leave.  Imagine an AT&T that was truly confident in its ability to serve? How would it behave in the marketplace?  It would invite customers to stay only as long as we’re satisfied — and not a cell-phone minute longer.

I find this decision scandalous, particularly since I’m already a frustrated AT&T customer (I can barely make it through a phone call without it being dropped).  When a company moves towards trapping customers, the clock starts ticking on its ability to serve them.  Penalties for ending the relationship create sharp antagonism with customers — antagonism that’s disproportionately felt by front-line workers — and signals to the entire organization to forget about excellence.

This toxic combination ensures mediocrity and accelerates a company’s decline.  I get it.  Winning the cell phone game is hard, and the people behind the idea likely had the best interests of the company in mind.  But when you broadcast that you can’t convince customers to voluntarily stick around, everyone hears you loud and clear, including your employees.  Who would keep trying in a culture like this?

Sigh.  This is a sad day for AT&T.


Organizational Insecurity

May 2, 2010

I was intrigued by a recent NYT interview with Omar Hamoui, founder and chief executive of the mobile advertising network AdMob.  Hamoui argued that organizational insecurity led to deep resistance to discussing problems:

When people are insecure, they just tend to hide and bury [problems]. The bad news eventually comes out, but it comes out all at once, and in sort of catastrophic form. I’m just much more in favor of conveying all the bad news in real time.

He continues:

If everybody at the company can feel that they’re not putting their jobs in peril by relaying those kinds of things, then you really do get a pretty accurate picture.

This manifests in a distinct culture at AdMob:

…we spend a great amount of time talking about everything that’s wrong. Not because we’re trying to be negative. You can only talk for so long about what’s going well and have it be useful. You can be a lot more productive if you spend time on the things that aren’t going well.

But this is atypical in most organizations, and so when others join the conversation, they need to be trained:

When we would have visitors come to our board meetings, I would have to spend time prepping them ahead of time, basically telling them: “Don’t worry. The company’s not falling apart. Everything’s going fine. This is just how we are.”

I often discuss the need to surface problems (here’s an earlier post on the subject), and whenever I do people get nervous about creating a culture of “whiners.”  They worry that if people are encouraged to bring up problems, particularly if they’re not on the hook for the solutions, then discussions will be reduced to toxic complaining about the other guy.  Hamoui has found just the opposite:

… nobody at AdMob is shy to point out a problem or an issue with a product or service, even if it’s a product or service that they didn’t build or they don’t own or doesn’t fall within their domain. People aren’t shy about bringing up these issues and being fairly demanding that we solve them. I think that that’s led to us being very proactive.

Every company has problems. Surfacing those problems and addressing them quickly is the sign of a healthy, secure organization.  It’s also the sign of an effective leader.  As Hamoui demonstrates, spinning reality and covering up the truth may be the more costly and dangerous path.


Toyota in Trouble (the quick and dirty version)

February 25, 2010

What happened at Toyota? Mr. Toyoda himself summed it up nicely, as the NYT recently reported.  In a nutshell, Toyota thrived when it focused on improvement. When that focus shifted to growth the company ran into serious trouble:

In his prepared testimony, released on Tuesday, Mr. Toyoda said he took personal responsibility for the situation. In the past, he said, the company’s priorities were safety and quality, and sales came last.

But as Toyota grew to become the world’s biggest carmaker, “these priorities became confused, and we were not able to stop, think and make improvements as much as possible,” Mr. Toyoda said.

Toyota earned its place as the most celebrated operations story of the past few decades because of its relentless commitment to surfacing problems.  The entire organization was focused on the same worthy goals of improving its cars and improving the way its cars were built.  This improvement philosophy reached beyond the factory floor and included strengthening relationships with suppliers and partners.  Toyota managers famously helped suppliers, for example, to lower their own costs by using principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS).  Growth followed naturally.

And then the company’s goal became selling more cars than anyone else, and the metric it glorified was sales growth.  This may seem like a small shift — from growth as an outcome of improvement to growth as a central goal — but the moral of the Toyota story is that this pivot can be devastating.  Improvement is a powerful, worthy mission for an organization’s stakeholders.  Growth can be (and usually is) associated with compromises, with winning the game at any cost.  Toyota paid a cultural price for this shift.  For example, instead of helping its suppliers reduce costs through operational improvement, Toyota began to mandate lower prices and left its suppliers to figure out the rest.  These choices created an environment where cutting corners both inside and outside the organization became likely.

I want the spotlight to linger on this story for a long time.  There are important lessons here beyond the fall of a once-mighty competitor.  The most important one may be that a company’s purpose matters, in ways that go beyond hard-to-measure outcomes like employee satisfaction and  customer loyalty.  Purpose infiltrates an entire organization, all the way down to the manufacturing of a faulty accelerator. My deep hope is that Toyota shows us both the cost of getting it wrong and the path back to getting it right.  Frankly, I’m optimistic.  The tradeoffs are now seared into the souls of every single manager at Toyota.  The company has a powerful incentive to return to its roots as a role model for improvement with growth as a manifestation.


Will Amazon Kill the Zappos Magic?

January 22, 2010

In a recent NYT interview Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”), CEO of Zappos, described his management priorities in this order:  culture first, service second.  This may come as a surprise to anyone who has first-hand experience with the Zappos service model, which consistently produces excellence at virtually every customer touch point.  I myself was surprised.  I’ve heard many executives talk about the need to align culture with service, but I’ve rarely heard someone describe culture as their organization’s primary purpose.

When pushed to explain what got him there, Hsieh reflected poignantly on a prior company he built and sold (for a great deal of money) that had a culture he and others hated.  He vowed never to let it happen again:

When it was starting out, when it was just 5 or 10 of us, it was like your typical dot-com. We were all really excited, working around the clock, sleeping under our desks, had no idea what day of the week it was. But we didn’t know any better and didn’t pay attention to company culture.

By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning…when I joined Zappos about a year later, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the same mistake…in terms of the company culture going downhill. So for us, at Zappos, we really view culture as our No. 1 priority. We decided that if we get the culture right, most of the stuff, like building a brand around delivering the very best customer service, will just take care of itself.

How do you “get the culture right?”  In Hsieh’s case, he and his team decided to live and die by a series of core values:

…we formalized the definition of our culture into 10 core values. We wanted to come up with committable core values, meaning that we would actually be willing to hire and fire people based on those values, regardless of their individual job performance. Given that criteria, it’s actually pretty tough to come up with core values.

I was particularly moved by his take on his own role in designing and protecting the Zappos culture, which involved a central responsibility to create an environment where other people will thrive:

Maybe an analogy is, if you think of the employees and culture as plants growing, I’m not trying to be the biggest plant for them to aspire to. I’m more trying to architect the greenhouse where they can all flourish and grow.

So what happens to the greenhouse once Amazon buys it? I wrestled with this question when I wrote about Zappos culture in a post last year, as I was getting ready to go on a case visit.  We wrote the case just as the Amazon purchase was going through (for just under a billion dollars).

Amazon has clearly indicated its respect for Zappos culture and its desire to leave the company alone to continue to deliver wold-class service.  My hope is that Amazon can resist the temptation that has tripped up so many other acquirers, the temptation to provide a bit too much help the moment the acquired misses its numbers, a tweak here, a tweak there, to improve its performance.  That kind of help can be a lethal blow to the true drivers of a company’s value.  In the case of Zappos, I’m not convinced its culture could survive this well-intentioned support.


Leadership at Home

December 12, 2009

Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage.  The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).

I was particularly moved by two passages.  The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.

And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere.  They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls.  A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.

The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit.  As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:

Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.

The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.


Culture Change at GM: Declaring it Doesn’t Make it So

October 9, 2009

The NYT reported that the board of GM wanted the culture of the organization to change:

In the interim, Mr. Henderson stressed that G.M.’s new board was pushing management to speed up decisions on new products and install a culture devoted to pleasing customers.

I’m not optimistic. The first red flag is the title of the article, G.M. Is Adapting to a New Culture, Chief Says.  In my experience, culture doesn’t change upon decree from the top.  Culture exists because of years of reinforcing norms and behaviors.  It exists because smart people constantly pick up on how status is gained and which behaviors are valued in practice (not in the introduction to the annual report). Changing culture requires unraveling and replacing that normative system in a comprehensive way.  The analogy that always comes to mind is clearing a patch of land to be farmed. You can’t just cut down the trees and declare victory. You have to get your hands dirty beneath the surface, digging up roots and turning over the soil.

In other words, you have to address the underlying conditions that allowed certain behaviors to thrive in the organization. Where to begin?  I suggest starting with my favorite question, now familiar to our readers:  why would reasonable, well-intentioned people do what they’re doing?  Once you can answer this question with an open heart, once you can identify the organizational drivers of the actions and choices you want to change, then you can begin to influence them.

Maybe the article got it wrong, but if it’s even close to correct, the 90 days allocated to this activity at GM will be wildly insufficient.