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Systems Redefined

Gentleman recognized as the father of operations, West Churchman said about systems that work well – are about aesthetics – NOT details.

You must be wondering why am I talking about systems? After all that is not a subject I have ever touched. There is a reason, few recent observations which you must delve into as well – it will change, and I hope it does, the way you look at organizations.

Taking on Churchman’s statement further – essentially what he is saying is this: a system needs to beautiful. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be detailed and documented with capability of colorful pie charts and tall graphs – it has to be BEAUTIFUL.

Beauty makes sense to me. It in this context means - economical, minimal and parsimonious. Yet the strange truth is, you ask a 100 people in your organization for a 100 synonyms for ‘systems’ – I can guarantee that in modern organizations with self proclaimed ‘Class A’ systems, NOT ONE of the 10000 words will be ‘beautiful’. Thus in the eyes of the father of systems – you don’t have one or have a lousy one!!

Taking this simple research forward, JW Marriot realized (still implementing) they didn’t have beauty in their systems. They learnt that even for a long stay at the hotel – the perception in the mind of the customer about the hotel and it’s service was established in the first 10 minutes. Subsequently they got rid of the bell man, of the reception process. Replaced it with a Guest Relation Officer, who met you at the entrance, took your luggage, took you to the room and with a UPS like device checked you in on the way to your room. All this in less than 3 minutes. That is economy and aesthetics of systems.

I ordered a book some weeks back from some group called the Project Management Institute. The book came nicely packed in time. That was good. There was a letter with it. Very good. Now the letter started even better – Dear CustomerThank you for your order. Before I divulge further contents, I have never been able to understand this – no one’s parents ever named them customer.. Why on earth we send a letter like that. The letter proceeded. THIS book may NOT be returned under ANY circumstances unless it got significantly damaged on the way to you. AND if it was damaged you must make your claim within five working days.


At least they could have had a little bit of fun if that’s how their idea of customer service is—they might as well have said, Hey Chetan we know you steal and cheat. Don’t try to pull that one on us. We got you!

Well then I would’ve had a good laugh…coz that’s what they really said, didn’t they…We know your kind man!!

Now, sometime back I was working with a textile company. A significant part of their business at the time was the mail order business. So while consulting with the company we decided to have some kind of an enclosure in the package, a card that will establish a friendly relation with the customer.. So I went down to the Director of Operations and said how about putting up a feedback / complaint card with every package. But I told her that you are wonderful person, please write it as a human being and not as a director of operations.

She way exceeded my expectations. You got to read this. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Abc.. PLEASE COMPLAIN….. Thank you for your order. We want everything to go perfectly. If the order was late or wrong or if any of the goods are damaged in the slightest or even if you are just having a lousy day and just want to load on to someone, please call our customer care hotline..

Isn’t it lovely. Its human, its wonderful.

People don’t get it – there is no law that prevents you from being human!!

I urge each of you to pull out two papers – an internal communication document and one external communication document (to a client, a supplier) and read it as if you were from somewhere else. Which one does it sound like – the Project Management Institute or the latter?

Are you not literally demeaning people? Simply rate your documents on a scale of 1-10 on two dimensions – beauty and grace – Try it!! And think about it. Look at FEDEX, what is their system, why did it help them to a 15 Billion Dollar company in no time? What is the magic of Nordstrom? What is the magic of SouthWest Airline that runs a discount airline with the best service in the world. It is most profitable and is the safest airline in the world. What is the magic? I think it is words like – systems that are beautiful….

The world essentially thrives on quality. Quality is essential to compete. Over the last ten years India has made great advancements in quality. Wonderful ones. BUT you cannot any longer compete on quality.. You can equally get it in Bangalore as you can in Bangkok or Brazil or any where else. “Quality as defined by few defects is becoming the basis of entry for the players interested in the automotive sector rather than a competitive advantage.” This is the conclusion of a JD Power survey.

The issue is not the quality and systems we build around it. Three days ago in the Wall Street Journal, the Head of Quality at Motorola described this better than anyone else – he described the ISO 9000 process perfectly. - “With ISO 9000 you can still have terrible processes and products . You can certify a manufacturer that produces life jackets from concrete as long as that jacket is made with the documented procedure and the company provides the next of kin with the instructions on how to complain about the defects.” Isn’t that perfect?

ITS NOT ABOUT THE SYSTEM. You can have any number of hi-tech, advanced and technically evolved mechanisms. IT IS ABOUT YOUR ATTITUDE to the system. Is the attitude to create humanness or to create simply a process.

Think about it from a human perspective.. Take an example. Lets say you go to a FABULOUS game of 20-20, a FABULOUS rock concert, a WONDERFUL play, a MARVELOUS romantic dinner, this coming Saturday night with your spouse or significant other, and after three lovely hours in the restaurant – you walk out – you turn to your spouse or significant other and you say “Oh my dear! What a LOVELY evening, it confirmed to requirements!!!”

People don’t talk like that, but business people DO. Quality is about goodness. System is about goodness as much in an IT company as it is in a restaurant. Are you beginning to see what we actually end up doing?

Mr. Gibbons, former CEO of Burger King who was responsible for getting the company back up in a very short time to compete with McDonalds again – described the following statement as a number one nightmare – we did it right but it was still very ordinary. Read it again – we did it right but it was still very ordinary.

Richard Branson put it wonderfully when he started Virgin (airline). He said we do not want to get into the transportation industry, we are still in entertainment. He describes his systems and processes to be ‘people’s personalities’.. You could see them living it. I remember flying Virgin and the crew about to make the safety announcement began by saying, “There may be 50 ways to leave your lover but there are only 6 exits in this aircraft. Listen carefully.” I think that’s human.. Isn’t it.. Doesn’t that one sentence tell you the organization you are with?

The late great Jerry Garcia said you do not want to be considered the best of the best – you want to be the only one’s to do what you do. Its wonderful language – one it makes business sense – two and this is a very personal reason – I do not understand why anyone would bother to get out of bed to go to work if that’s not your goal. We’d all want to go see India play the world cup cricket final, if we got a ticket, we’d probably be at the stadium two hours before the match and stay there till well after the end of the presentation ceremony to see India be the OLNL ONE to hold the world cup aloft. The question is if that is not your (or organization) goal, to be the only one at something, then why bother with anything at all. Just float around. Hang in there. Life will pass by comfortably.

“Success means never letting the competition define you, instead you have to define yourself through a point of view you care deeply about.” I don’t know he author of this line but to me it’s as good a strategy you’ll see. I say that because I have had access to a few internal documents you see in a company.. You find stuff like ‘exceed expectations’.. ‘conform to requirements’.. ‘delight’ .. etc etc… The problem is after writing this statements we slice them with a knife and find processes and systems to help us achieve this. Systems, we find, beauty we will not, because the statements are not even about being the best, leave alone being the only one.

“magical moments’ is what Walt Disney called it. “lust after! and the only one’s to do what we do’ is what Andy Grove calls it. I am not trying to get it down to statements here. I am trying to make a very simple point. The marketplace is crowded with similar to yours, products and services. What will make the difference? Quality in every form will catch up – in today’s times faster than ever. Thus, things like these ought to be the difference. Churchman’s finding – aesthetic systems – will arise from attitudes of Disneys and Groves, not by implementing humanless and inhuman, non beautiful systems and processes.

ITS about the attitude to create beauty and grace not about creating a perfect system. Remember the nightmare – you might do it perfectly, but not good enough. I hear consultants and service providers, even the Big Four consulting firms, saying that the services our becoming commoditized – Nothing irritates me more than this. Guess what the answer is – you created perfect systems – too perfect – but just not what the father of operations suggested. A seemingly inadequate small statement – (systems that work well – are about aesthetics – NOT details). Very silly to overlook the fact of it.

Think about this. Think about this in your organization. Think about this in the brand called ‘you’.

And redefine systems to be human and graceful. At least begin with your own.


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