The simplicity of satisfaction

"What is your idea of perfect happiness?" Ask me, and I would probably ramble for about 10 minutes. But ask author Fran Lebowitz, and she will answer: "Silence."

I was taken by Ms Lebowitz's responses to a questionnaire in Vanity Fair magazine.

For example: What is your most treasured possession? "English."

Who is your favourite hero of fiction? "Truth."

I believe that my reaction was common: it was one of awe in the face of brilliant and unexpected simplicity.

The world really is a complex place. Nonetheless, most of the things we admire, from the old Volkswagen Beetle to the 1985 Macintosh computer operating system, we admire because of their simplicity.

I recently finished filming a show for US public television, entitled "Service With Soul", which features five organisations with businesses ranging from police work to plastics. But all have one thing in common: startling simplicity and a profound clarity of purpose.

K Barchetti Shops. One consultant said that Katherine Barchetti's men's and womenswear shop in Pittsburgh (which averages $800 per square foot in sales against an industry average of $220) was the best retail operation he had found in more than 800 cities. The reason: All of the attention of Ms Barchetti and her staff is focused on the customer.

The shop's use of database marketing, for example, is as phenomenal as Nintendo; it is barely an exaggeration to claim that there's nothing the firm doesn't know about its 30,000 customers. Ms Barchetti's sales people, who are measured six ways daily with regard to customer satisfaction, are selected with the kind of care normally associated with entrance to medical schools. The anointed are then moulded into full-blown retailers.

"Make a customer, not a sale," says Ms Barchetti. You can smell her commitment to her customers from a mile away - and see the absence of any distractions from it.

De-Mar Plumbing. Larry Harmon is to plumbing what Michelangelo was to ceilings. He offers 24-hour-a-day service for 365 days a year (with no extra charge for off-hours calls). He has gift certificates, gives discounts to the elderly, sends out spotless trucks equipped with the sort of communication equipment you'd expect on the space shuttle - and has a points system for his service advisers (plumbers) which stresses (shades of Barchetti) making a customer for life, not a one-time sale. Every action at De-Mar is targeted unmistakably on the customer.

Nypro. The cut-throat business of injection-moulded plastics defines the term commodity. Yet Nypro, of Clinton, Massachusetts, with 22 factories round the world, has found a way to stand out. In 1989, boss Gordon Lankton decided to shoot for the moon. The quality standard for that industry at the time was 10,000 defects per million, yet Lankton chose to adopt the so-called "six sigma standard" (3.4 defects per million).

It meant firing, in effect, about 90 per cent of his 800 customers, and focusing unflinchingly on about 30 (such as Gilette and Baxter International) that were sophisticated enough to appreciate his extreme quality commitment.

Chicago Police Department. The department was a slave to the 911 emergency number, says Superintendent Matt Rodriguez. Its force of 13,000 made lots of arrests, but fears about crime continued to soar. The department's answer: the nation's biggest experiment in community policing. The basic idea: Do it with the community, not to the community.

The cops are getting much closer to the people on their beats (customers) and spending much more time working with neighbourhoods on crime prevention.

Southwest Airlines. I have reported before on Southwest's magical combination of a focused system (short hauls, one type of aircraft, no frills, no baggage transfer) and spirited service (hiring attitudes, not credentials).

Sure, a host of incentives and systems are required to keep these operations on course; and each top boss adds new twists all the time. Nonetheless, the core idea in each case could readily be understood by an 8-year-old (such as the kids in the neighbourhoods that are now better served by the Chicago Police Department).

My examination of these five companies has led me to the study of haiku, the extraordinary 17-syllable form of Japanese poetry. My objective was to try to come to understand simplicity.

A leading character in a novel by the great Russian writer Turgenev penned a one-line suicide note: "I could not simplify myself."

While suicide is hardly the answer if the clarity of your strategy is falling short of that of Larry Harmon's plumbers or the Chicago police, I believe that simplicity may be the single most important key to sustainable business success. TPG Communications

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?