Management: Important to take in the whole picture

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The Independent Online
IN TAKING stock of a new restaurant, you could just list the pertinent details: the waiter's attitude, the decor, cleanliness of the washrooms. Yet such a list misses much of the point - which is that an overall impression dominates the decision whether to return or not.

Consider John Steinbeck's account of a fishing expedition: 'The Mexican sierra has 17, plus 15, plus nine spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being - an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

'The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines and write the truth . . . There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed - probably the least important reality concerning the fish or yourself.'

In short, the number of spines is not the fish itself or the experience of catching it, any more than the quality of the cutlery is the restaurant. Yet dealing with wholes is not easy for business people.

For one thing, most of us work in narrow functional areas (sales, parts, service) at the auto dealership. How can we possibly conjure up the overall sense of doing business with our company?

Take seriously the idea of wholes. Just thinking and talking about sweeping impressions - as ephemeral as that notion may be - is an important first step. Try to stop immediately dissecting; stick with the big picture.

Begin customer surveys with an open-ended holistic question: 'How was your experience with us?' Next, use a scale featuring emotional words or phrases to assess the complete experience, such as 'neat' or 'OK' or 'yuck'. - Make most work multifunctional. Companies are trying to make jobs more 'whole' - such as having one person or a small team handle an insurance policy application from start to finish. In general, everything from product development to customer fulfilment can be made much less fragmented, automatically putting the focus on the total experience.

Get everyone into perpetual job-rotation, including stints as dealer for a day, or president for a day. Job rotation is often an important part of indoctrination, but that is usually the last time a worker directly experiences other departments. My suggestion: everyone ought to spend several weeks a year performing different jobs to broaden the individual's experience and to offer departments the benefit of new perspectives.

Regularly conduct 'wholes' audits. Take random groups of employees and walk through the total experience of dealing with your company - from initial contact to the delivery of the product or service. Let everyone, if possible, occasionally experience the actual horizontal flow of the customer through the firm.

In training sessions, have employees discuss encounters with dry cleaners, estate agents, contractors, car dealers. Assessing genuine outside encounters can help us understand how a customer draws conclusions about our business.

Emphasise beginnings and ends. The research is clear: the way an episode starts and ends has an overwhelming impact on general impressions. I'm constantly astonished at how few outfits focus on beginnings and endings - and how much mileage comes to those who do.

Debrief all job candidates, whether or not you hire them. Prospective employees see you naively; their take can be frighteningly clear. One of my mentors said consultants learn most about a client in the first 96 hours of contact; subsequent work is mostly fleshing out details.

Debrief customers you've just gained immediately after they've decided. Choices are based mostly on wholes, so catch the decision-makers while their images are fresh. Don't limit contact to a questionnaire; sit down, once a month, with a couple of customers gained or lost in the previous week.

Work on the sincere heart. Consider the Japanese Way of Tea. On the one hand, it takes years to learn to prepare such things as the path to the tearoom; equally important, according to the tea masters, is the development of 'sincere heart'. Wholes, above all, are about spirit, passions, care - the things we recall, for good or for ill, about car dealers, hospitals and airlines alike.