. . .to the voice of your customers? Do you think your competitors are?

Successful managers today are learning to ask questions. Questions about

their business. Questions about what their customers want, and how they want it. And, they’re doing something positive with the answers they get.

Some of the simple questions they ask themselves are:

  1. How can I do this faster?
  2. How can I do it for less?
  3. What if I don’t do it at all?
  4. Are all successful companies doomed to extinction?
  5. What is this work for?
  6. What are we aiming at here?
  7. What is the market?
  8. Who is the customer?
  9. How can we work better, and better, and better?

The answers often lead to a re-thinking about some of the fundamental processes you may be doing today, because “you’ve always done it that way.” We should leave behind perfectionist organizational thinking, with it’s faith in an eternal, universally right way of doing things. Instead, our thinking should be radically experimental. If we don’t like it, too bad; we have no choice. As PepsiCo’s Wayne Calloway said, “The marketplace just won’t let you stand still.”

 A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting with Shoji Shiba, a Japanese economist with a concept that the business world is made up of several fishbowls that represent markets and the fish represent companies swimming in their market fishbowls. He believes that the only way to deal with your fish in their fishbowls is to enter the fishbowl and ask your fish two questions: “What do you want and how do you want it?” That’s what “listening to the voice of the customer” is all about.

 We should abandon the management credo “Get it right, then keep going” and embrace the credo “Get it right and make it better, and better, and better.” Or even, “Make it something else.” We should exchange the abstraction of ex officio authority for the reality of existential authority. Authority is no longer vested in a place on the organization chart, but in the ability to do a job better for the customer. Too many controls and too much supervision stifle the people at the point-of-encounter with the customer, leaving them feeling restricted, intimidated, or bored.

 We must keep our old adversarial/ competitive strategy of managerial betterment with its slogan “May the best man (woman, product, company, idea) win!” We should keep it in its proper place, though. We must also learn that a supportive strategy with a belief that things get better, too, when people are allowed to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to go to their “personal best.” Everyone wants to hit home runs. Remember that when Babe Ruth was the home run king, he also led the league in strikeouts!

 If we broaden our age-old devotion to growth to include an equally old but only recently rediscovered devotion to service. In other words, “More is better” should yield to “Better is better – for the customer and for us.”

Finally, for managers, the most difficult change is to the paradox of the human will: that most often, the only way to gain control is to give it up. There is a way that giving up power is actually having it. You do it first yourself.

 Speaking of Changing. The only way to make a company change-ready is to start with this “big-picture” question: What, and who, is this business really for? Asking the question is only the first step. Answers must be found out in the real world, with customers, suppliers, partners, investors, and employees.