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