Words Matter.

It was a cold, rainy, blustery fall day. By the time I got inside I was totally drenched. Wondering what I was going to do with my dripping umbrella, you can imagine my relief when I saw a rack of umbrella bags conveniently placed in the lobby. Taking one, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that it was great that the building provided this convenience for customers, but the wording of the sign above the bags felt a little off-putting to me:

“Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.”

If you’re wondering why I thought the wording was odd, contrast it with the wording on an umbrella bag rack in another building just up the street:

“For your safety and convenience.”

Notice the difference?

  • Sign 1 used the word ‘our’: Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.
  • Sign 2 used the word ‘your’ instead: For your safety and convenience.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “So what? Who cares? Both buildings are giving out exactly the same umbrella bags. How much difference could one word possibly make?”

In my opinion, that seemingly tiny wording choice makes a huge difference – both for customers and for the people who work for each building company. Here’s why.

  • The wording of Sign 1 focuses internally on the company. The sign actually tells the customer what they can do for the company: ‘Help keep our floors dry.’
  • The wording of Sign 2 focuses on the customer. It lets customers know what the company is going to do for them! ‘For your safety and convenience.’

As a customer, I can assure you that I’d prefer to know that the focus is on me – on my safety and convenience – and not on how I can improve the efficiency of a company’s internal process such as mopping a wet floor numerous times a day, which is what I immediately thought about after reading Sign 1.

Although Sign 1 may imply that keeping the floor dry will improve customer safety, Sign 2 states it explicitly. And as important as that is for how customers feel, it’s just as important for the building company’s employees. Because service is about caring for other people and putting their needs first. Choosing to use words that make that explicit reinforces that the company expects its team members to have a ‘customer first’ orientation. In a nutshell, how your employees feel about and treat your customers will depend, in a large part, on the words your company chooses to use, in internal and external communications of all sorts, including signs.

As well as choosing internally focused words instead of customer focused words, many service organizations also use what I call “machine words”, instead of “human, organic words” to describe the organization itself. This always surprises me, because what service organizations are all about is people! People creating value with other people during each service interaction.

In The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, coauthor Jeff Liker and I describe the negative consequences of viewing organizations as ‘machines’ instead of as the ‘living human systems’ that they are (see Chapter 3: Principle 1: Philosophy of Long-Term Systems Thinking). Unfortunately, when we use machine words to describe our customers – and the people who serve them – we create the conditions that allow us to ‘forget’ that our customers are human beings, just like we are. And when we forget that they are human beings, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that they have feelings, wants and desires that we need to satisfy through our service.

As organizations, we’re often so used to using machine words to describe our customers that we might not even notice we’re using them. Some examples to look for in your organization are:

  • Referring to customers as ‘client or account numbers’
  • Referring to customer requests as transaction types such as invoices, tickets, work order number or out of service items (If your organization practices lean, take a look at your huddle boards and see what language they use.)

As well as being ‘machine words’, these are also words that have to do with internal processes. Like the umbrella bag sign example earlier, using these types of words takes the focus away from the customer and puts it squarely on internal processes. Imagine how differently service representatives might care for customers if, instead of referring to them as a number, they were accustomed to referring to them by company or contact name and by the specific service need each one has.

As a company, using non-human machine words to describe the people who serve your customers, or to describe what people do each day is also problematic. Again, it doesn’t encourage a culture of human beings helping human beings – which is what customer service is all about. Some common ‘machine words’ used to describe employees that I hear often are:

  • Employee numbers
  • Resources
  • Human capital
  • Talent
  • Brand

Why can’t we just use people’s names instead of giving them a number? After all, each one of us is a unique individual with something special to offer. And what if we referred to people as colleagues, co-workers, team-mates or team-members? What a difference that would make in how people view themselves and their roles; instead of separating, dividing and dehumanizing, these words connect people in the shared purpose of caring for customers.

And what about words like ‘leverage’, ‘drive’, and ‘move the needle’? More machine words. What if we substituted words like create, grow, develop, blossom and help instead? We want our team members to treat our customers (and each other!) with caring and compassion, empathy and understanding. if we use machine language to describe our people, how can we expect them to feel and act, not like ‘cogs in the machine’, but like the caring human beings they are, and that our customers need them to be?

Words both create and transmit organizational culture. To both customers and the team members who serve them. So, if you’re in the business of serving customers (and truthfully, what business isn’t?) and you want to make sure that your customers are being treated in a kind, caring, compassionate and human way, take a close look at the words that you are using. Because every single one of them matters.

Of Course We Can Help You!

Practicing Kata for Service Excellence

Recently I had some service experiences where the person who was supposed to be helping me gave what I call the “list of I can’ts.” I can’t help you because …our computer system isn’t set up to do that, …we don’t take credit cards in my department, …our company policy doesn’t allow it. This list can go on, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it too.

For a service customer it’s frustrating, but for a service organization it can be devastating. In today’s marketplace customers can – and do – easily find alternate providers with comparable services and prices (think banks and insurance companies). At least 50 percent of customers switch service providers after one poor experience.* And what’s almost guaranteed to give a customer a poor service experience? Hearing the two words no customer wants to hear: “I can’t…”

As a Lean consultant, coach, and coauthor, with Jeff Liker, of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I’ve been working exclusively in the service industry. The best thing I’ve found to help service representatives learn how to go from “I can’t” to “Of course we can” is practicing the scientific thinking routines of Toyota Kata. Here’s why:

  • In services, value for the customer is created immediately during each service interaction. Think phone call to a call center or a meal in a restaurant. Because the Improvement Kata pattern is a structured way to develop people’s ability to overcome obstacles and meet challenging goals, representatives who practice it regularly develop a habit of “figuring out how” very quickly. And that’s exactly the habit a customer service representative needs.
  • Because service work often seems ‘invisible’ – decisions take place in people’s minds and transactions are completed behind the computer screen – it can be difficult for managers to ‘see’ how their service representatives are thinking. The Coaching Kata makes those thought processes visible, giving the manager a deliberate, structured way to develop their team members critical thinking and scientific problem-solving skills.

I’ve seen the Kata approach work over and over again in many service sectors and organizations. Here’s an example from the insurance industry.

A prospective customer indicated they could give the insurance company a large amount of business if policies could be underwritten within two hours. Since the process normally took at least 48 hours, you can imagine the list of “I can’ts” that followed! Wanting to satisfy the customer – and grow their business with the large number of accounts promised – the underwriting team practiced the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata approach to work their way through all the obstacles that previously prevented them from being able to produce these types of policies within two hours. Within two weeks, with a lot of experimentation – and great coaching from their supervisor – the policies were being produced within the required time! The customer was happy and the company was too!

Here’s a challenge for you… If you work in a service company, or the service portion of a manufacturing company, take some time to go to gemba – the place where service representatives are creating value with your customers with each interaction – and listen carefully. Do you hear a long list of “I can’ts?” Wonder how practicing Kata can work for your service organization? First, check out The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, where you’ll find case studies and stories of Kata application-practice and success from service organizations as diverse as healthcare, software development and even a taxi company. Then…..

Join Us at KataCon3!

The annual Kata Summit is affectionately called “KataCon” and the next one is February 21-22 in San Diego. You have the opportunity to learn more about how to practice Kata in services during my keynote on Creativity and Kata for Service Excellence, as well as during the interactive Kata in Services session I’m facilitating and by networking with other service Kata geeks. And if you have questions about The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I’d love to answer them as well.

Your service organization can’t afford not to practice something like the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata, because the last words your customers want to hear are, “I can’t.”  Learn how to practice the IK & CK so your representatives will be able to say: “Of course we can help you. Let’s figure out how.” That’s what every customer wants!


This mini-article was originally published in the KataCon3 Newsletter.

If You Can’t Explain It Simply…

Does it seem that your team is working on projects that aren’t getting you closer to where you need to be? That they don’t seem clear about your organization’s priorities, even though you’ve talked about them over and over again? Maybe you’ve even written a great vision and mission statement and posted it on your company website and around your office.

If your team members don’t seem to be working on priority work, maybe its because those priorities aren’t as clear to them as you think they are.

As a lean consultant and coach, and coauthor of The Toyota Way To Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, I’m often asked to give coaching ‘tips and tricks’. In this post, I’m going to share an approach I often start with when asked to help an organization determine why priorities don’t seem to be clear to team members.

A simple exercise that I use to help leaders find out whether their team members clearly understand the priorities is to pick a team member – any team member – and ask them to state the organization’s vision and/mission statement – without looking it up somewhere – like the company intranet or poster displayed somewhere in the office. Most people can’t do it. This is often surprising to leaders, but it’s not to me. And here’s why. As human beings, we can only easily remember sequences of four to seven items. Yes, that’s four to seven words or numbers. And in my experience, when priorities are communicated to employees, they are in formats much longer than that with many words, and often, even more metrics. As our work world get more complex and we have more and more added to our plates, unless something is short and sweet, its not likely that we’re going to remember it, or make the space for it in our already overly cluttered brains.

Also, as Einstein so eloquently reminds us in the above quote, when things aren’t stated simply, it’s an indication that they aren’t really understood. If you are a leader, here’s an experiment you can do to see how clearly you really understand the priorities that you are communicating to your organization: State your organization’s purpose in ten to fifteen words or less. Then state the three metrics (yes, you can only choose three) that are most important for your organization to reach those priorities. Go ahead and give it a try. I think you’ll find that it’s not as easy as it looks. If you’re a leader in an organization today, chances are you are managing in a very complex environment. Customer needs are constantly changing, as is the market. Acquisitions and reorganizations only compound that complexity.

As a leader, its not easy to sort through it all and come to the very deep understanding of what your customers – and your company – really need. But it’s essential. Because if you, as the leader, don’t truly understand the priorities well enough to state them very simply, then you can be sure that you aren’t going to be able to communicate them in a way that’s simple, clear and concise enough so that each person in your organization is able to remember them. And if each person in your organization can’t remember them easily – easily enough to be able to repeat them when asked – how can you expect them to be able to prioritize the many different things they are asked to do each day?

When people come to work, they want to know that they are working on the things that satisfy customers and help their team, their organization and their company flourish, thrive and grow. They want to be part of something – engaged in something – ‘bigger than themselves’. It’s human nature. As organizations, and leaders, then, we need to make sure that those priorities are communicated simply and concisely in a format that’s easy everyone to remember.

So, if you find that your team isn’t working on the projects that are getting your organization closer to its goals, take a look at how you’re communicating your priorities. They simply might not be stately as clearly as you think.

‘Leaning Out’ Processes? Or Creating Service Excellence?

This weekend I took my husband for a medical procedure. The procedure was conducted at the outpatient facility of a large, regional medical group that my husband’s doctor belongs to. And yes, as you can imagine (and as I’m often asked), as coauthor of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I do pay careful attention to service experiences of all sorts. Not having had to visit this kind of outpatient facility very often, I was particularly interested in what my husband, and I, as customers, would experience.

Here’s how it went:

  •  As soon as we entered the building, a narrow hallway led us directly to the reception area. My husband was checked-in immediately and given a clipboard with a short form to fill out.
  • A friendly admin then asked my name and my relationship to my husband, which she wrote on the top of my his admission paperwork.
  • Next, I was handed a pager (just like one you get when waiting for a restaurant table or take-out food) and told: “Keep this with you. When the procedure is done, it will buzz. Come right back here and we’ll let you know which recovery room to go to.”
  • My husband and I found seats in the waiting room, and moments later a prep nurse came over, collected both my husband and his paperwork and whisked him back for the procedure.
  • I nervously settled in to wait for my pager to buzz so I’d know when to head back to the recovery room.

The whole check-in couldn’t have taken more than 7 or 8 minutes. Quick. Efficient.

Although I don’t know for sure, I could imagine that the regional medical group used some kind of lean six sigma strategy to make the intake process more efficient by removing waste. After all, no one likes to wait, and with the large volume of patients coming through (the waiting room was jam-packed), finding ways to gain efficiency for the staff by using things like pagers could be quite helpful. Patients moved quickly through the check in process and ’things’ really seemed to flow.  On the surface, everything appeared to be great. But was it really?

I don’t think so. And the reason is that although the process may have been efficient, the whole experience made me feel like my husband and I were ‘things’. Especially when the pager went off (buzzed loud enough to make me and all the others waiting around me jump). As I leaped up to find out how to get the pager to stop buzzing, and, more importantly, where to go to be with my husband in recovery, (no one had updated me on his progress during the procedure), I thought to myself, “This is really terrible. Maybe the pagers are an easy and efficient way for the staff to let people know their loved ones are ‘ready’, but I’m not picking up a sandwich — a thing — my husband is a person, and I am too.”

Contrast this with an experience I had a couple of years ago with a different medical group.

  • Similar type of facility and intake process. No waiting time to be checked in.
  • My husband and I were then taken by a nurse to a prep room. My husband was able to stay with me while the nurse did my prep and while the doctor explained what would happen from start to end of our time at the facility.
  • Once I was wheeled into the operating room, the same nurse took my husband to a group waiting area. She then updated him regularly on my progress and when the procedure was over she brought him back to the recovery room so he would be there as soon as I was wheeled in.

At no time during the experience, which, even though pretty routine, was still quite stressful, did I — or my husband — have to be alone. We both heard all of the same instructions and were able to ask questions the other didn’t think of. The process itself was very efficient, but that wasn’t the most important part of the experience; more importantly, the personalized care made both my husband and I feel not like ‘things’, but valued and cared for as human beings. And isn’t that what a service experience — especially one in healthcare — should make us feel like?

As Jeff Liker, my coauthor, and I explain in The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, service excellence is not about simply ‘leaning out’ processes to remove waste, improve internal efficiency and drive short-term financial results. Service excellence starts with a deep understanding of what each of your specific customers want, need and value as a human being (see Principle 2 of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence. 17 Principles). Once you know that, you can continuously strive towards creating those peak service experiences that connect with each of your customers to improve their lives.

I often hear lean practitioners say, “Focus on the value stream first. Start by improving the value stream.” The problem with that is it is very easy to become focused only on driving internal efficiency. Service, by definition, involves focusing not on ourselves, but on others — our customers — first. I say, “Focus on the customer. Start by really understanding what you can do to improve things for your customer.” Once you understand what each of your customers — the people your business serves — need, you can then find unique ways to improve the way value flows to them to create the peak service experiences each of them wants.

That’s good for your customers and good for your business.

Your customers have many different choices of where to purchase their services and products. Unless you can provide the experiences that they truly want and value — that will improve their lives as human beings — you are in danger of losing them to competitors who figure out how to do just that. Years ago, I actually had the same doctor my husband did. As an independent practice, the experience was personal and human. Once they joined the regional medical group, however, I began to feel that I was just a ‘thing’. So I ‘shopped around’ until I found a practice that had the human, personal, caring experience that I wanted. Then I switched.

Service excellence isn’t about ‘leaning out’ processes. It’s about people. And about finding the specific ways for your service providers to deliver your services efficiently and effectively and connect with your customers in ways that makes them feel like valued human beings in each and every interaction.

This week’s challenge. Take a look at your company’s service processes. Are they simply ‘lean’ or are they delivering service excellence? Your customers really care. And you should too.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences on this topic.

Karyn Ross


Does your company have a ‘lean’ program that’s focused only on driving internal efficiency and not on service excellence? Or, have a question about how your company can get started on service excellence? Contact me at karyn@karynrossconsulting.com. I’d love to help.


Creativity Takes…Time and Practice!

In my role as a service excellence consultant, as competition for customers gets tougher, I’m hearing a lot more talk about innovation and creativity than I used to. As I work to help people rediscover and use their creativity and Toyota Way principles, practices and tools to turn those ideas into peak service experiences, I’ve come across quite a number of what I call ‘misconceptions’ about creativity and the creative process.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that creativity is something that ‘just is’ or that it’s something that ‘happens’ in one fell swoop, like a bolt of lightning coming down from the sky: that ‘innovation’ means a new idea that simply magically appears out-of-the-blue and all-of-a-sudden – and definitely only to other people – not to us!

In my experience, that’s not how it works. Creativity, the basis of innovation, is a natural part of our humanity; we all have the propensity – whether we acknowledge it or not – to be creative: to synthesize experiences and ideas together to combine what we know into something that is ‘new’.

Misconception #1: Creativity happens suddenly out of nowhere!

If you think carefully about it, many of the products and services that seem suddenly to have ‘appeared out of nowhere’ actually just combined a number of tried and true ideas in a different way:

  • Your smartphone is really just a handheld computer + a wireless phone. Over time and countless iterations synthesizing already known ideas, people simply figured out how to make a computer small enough to be held in the palm of a person’s hand and combine it with wireless phone technology!
  • Uber. Although ride-sharing might seem like a new business model, it’s actually been around since the mid 1910’swhen jitneys drove people in unlicensed cabs for low fares. The folks at Uber simply figured out how to synthesize app technology and an already tried business model to connect riders and drivers in a way that works for both.

As my mother (and maybe yours) often said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” If you look carefully at many other innovations, you’ll be able to unravel the synthesis of those ideas over time as well. Small, iterative changes and ideas that built on each other allowed people to do things in what only appear to be radical new ways. Creativity, then, is something that ‘happens’ over time.

Misconception #2: Creativity can’t be learned

Another common ‘misconception’ about creativity is that you either ‘have it’ or you ‘don’t’: you’re a ‘creative type’ or ‘you’re not’. Once you realize that creativity involves synthesizing past experiences and ideas over time, then it’s easy to dispel this common myth too.

We’re all creative. If we want to be more creative, it doesn’t take sudden inspiration or a bolt of lightning, what it takes is practice. Regular, deliberate practice. Just like learning and improving any other skill. If you want to improve your golf game, you head out to the driving range and practice. You might even engage a golf pro to help direct you, give you feedback and make sure that you’re practicing correctly.

Like anything else we want to get better at, we need to Include regular time for deliberately ‘practicing creativity’:

  • Set aside a specific time each day to spend thinking about how to solve a problem that seems impossible to you right now. Think about situations you’ve been in previously that were similar and what you could apply from those situations that could solve this problem.
  • Then think about situations you were in that seem totally dissimilar. What could you apply from those experiences to this one? How could the learning from that situation help you here?
  • Draw or write your ideas down (yes! Stick figures and poor spelling are totally fine!) and share them with a friend or colleague. Add in their thoughts and ideas too!

Then put your ideas into practice and try them out. I bet you’ll be pretty surprised at how creative you really are.

Creativity – and innovation – isn’t something mystical or magical. It’s practical. It’s the way we use our past experience and learning to solve problems and reach our goals on an ongoing basis. And the more time we spend practicing being creative, the more we will find that we are creative more often.

As people living in an ever more complicated world and as companies working to find ways to create the products and services that will satisfy and delight our customers, we’re all going to need to rely more and more on our creativity. Are you spending the time you need to deliberately practice your creativity each day?


The Toyota Way to…Peace!

Today is International Peace Day.

Although many people may not think about it this way, I believe that Toyota Way (lean) is actually a form of alternative dispute resolution, bringing people together to work in peaceful and harmonious ways. Here’s an example of what I mean:

A number of years ago, I was working with a financial services organization that was having a serious customer satisfaction problem. In order to accurately create the service their customers needed in a timely manner, two parts of the organization needed to work closely together. Problem was, they didn’t work together well at all. Each part of the organization blamed the other for their customers’ dissatisfaction and the people doing the work often spent more time arguing with each other and pointing fingers than they did solving customer problems. By the time I started working with them, both the organization’s leaders and the people doing the work seemed to have forgotten that the original problem was customer dissatisfaction. All they could think about was how miserable it was dealing with their colleagues in the other part of the organization. And, most importantly, what they didn’t see was that problems in creating the valuable work for their customers were actually causing people’s relationships to be disrupted – not the other way around.

Does this story sound familiar? I’m sure it does for many of you. Or maybe you work in an organization that has constant turnover. Or one in which people have a palpable dread on Sunday night, or after vacation, of returning to work.

In many organizations, these types of problems are considered ‘people’ problems. However, if you look more closely, in my experience, departments that are unable to get along and colleagues pitted against each other, are often really ‘symptoms’ of ways of working and underlying work processes that aren’t functioning properly.

Think about it. When you’ve been in work situations where the way work is being done is efficient and effective and work is flowing along optimally without hiccups, how have you felt? How have you felt about your colleagues? Probably pretty good. Everybody is able to do what they have to do when they have to do it. Your customers are probably pretty happy too and there are far fewer complaints to deal with. All in all, a peaceful, virtuous circle.

For me, that’s where Toyota Way (lean) comes in. With its focus on long-term systems thinking, purpose and deeply understanding (and serving) customers, the Toyota Way creates the conditions in which people are able to work together harmoniously. A few examples:

·     Finding ways to build in quality and not pass defects to our colleagues in the next part of the process means fewer opportunities to be frustrated with each other

·     Focusing on deeply understanding and delivering what each customer wants means that instead of spending time arguing amongst ourselves, we work collaboratively to solve our customers’ problems

·     Coaching people to develop them to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers gives them the ability to think through complicated, difficult situations and make careful, considered decisions incorporating diverse perspectives. Not only at work, but at home as well.

As adults, most of us probably spend more time at work than we do anywhere else. When we spend hours working in environments that are fearful, contentious, and stressful, the rest of our lives and how we deal with others at home and in our wider community is bound to be negatively affected – like the age-old comic of the boss who yells at an employee, and then the employee goes home and yells at his spouse, who yells at their child, who yells at the dog. Imagine how wonderful it would be if instead, we worked in environments that promoted compassion, caring, cooperation and collaboration – peace. We’d certainly be more likely to come home, hug our spouses and kids and work collectively for positive change in our communities.

If we want a more peaceful world, one of the best places to start to make a change is in our work environments. Finding ways to work, like the Toyota Way, that focus on holistically improving the entire system, brings people together to promote service to others to fulfill a deeper purpose.

Every single one of us is responsible for finding peaceful ways to coexist in our world. As you go about your work today, ask yourself, what is my organization doing to create a peaceful work environment and a peaceful world? What can I do to help?

Peaceful wishes for the whole world today.

Create Practically!

Recently, I attended a great conference about continuous improvement and innovation. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet and connect with people who are as interested in finding new ways to satisfy customers as I am. As I expected, there was a lot of discussion about ways to help organizations become more innovative.

But, there was also something that I hadn’t expected from a group gathered together to focus on innovation. And that was the attitudes and assumptions about creativity I experienced. Over and over, to my surprise, I heard comments such as:

“I’m the analytical type. I’m just not creative.”

“Creativity isn’t for us. We leave that to the ‘creative types’…you know the ones in the art department.”

“Creativity is a nice idea, but it doesn’t get anything done, and we’re all about results here.”

Thinking about it, I realized I was surprised because as I see it:

  • Innovation means making or doing things in new and/or different ways, which, in itself, implies creativity: having the ideas needed to bring new products or services into existence.
  • We are all creative beings. Creativity is what being human is all about; we’re both wired to put the knowledge gained from our experiences together in new and unique ways and we are driven to do so. Just think about all the things that seemed ‘impossible’ to even imagine, ten years ago, five years ago, or even yesterday, that are now just simply part of our everyday regular routine.
  • There’s no divide between creativity and practicality. Creativity – generating new ideas from the synthesis of past knowledge and experience – is simply the first step in turning vision into reality. Without an idea, a vision to begin to work from, there’s nothing to turn into reality.

As I thought more about my experience I realized that if we, as individuals and organizations, don’t see ourselves as creative, and, as well, view creativity as impractical, we miss huge opportunities: opportunities to create the peak service experiences and innovative products that will change our customers’ lives AND opportunities to engage each of our team members as the fully creative beings that they are.

So what can we do to change our ideas and assumptions about creativity? How can we help our people generate creative, new ideas to better meet the needs of each of our customers AND put those ideas into practice to deliver the results our business needs?

  • Listen carefully for what I call “I can’t” thinking, both in yourself and your team. Statements like “we can’t do that” or “that’s impossible” are good indications that an underlying attitude of “I’m not creative” exists. When you encounter “I can’t” thinking, stop, write down every possible obstacle, and then consciously work to generate as many ideas as possible to remove those obstacles. Spending time generating those ideas will give everyone practice being creative! And the more we practice, the more confidence we’ll gain that no matter who we are, what department we work in or what job we have, we’re all creative.
  • Once you and your team have generated an idea, immediately make a plan to test it in reality – as quickly as possible. If you have an idea this morning, find a way to test it in the afternoon! (Yes, you can…remember, no “I can’t” thinking.) See what happens: did what you think was going to happen occur? Or did something else happen? Once you try your idea and find out what happened you’ve taken the first step to turning an idea into reality – what I call “practical creativity™”. If the idea worked, great! If not, no problem, on to the next! The quicker you can “try your ideas in reality” the quicker you’ll see results for your customers and company.

The world is changing rapidly. For us, our customers and our companies. To flourish, thrive and fulfill our purpose, as people and organizations, increasingly we’re all going to need to be innovative. Luckily, for us, whether or not we realize it, as humans we are all creative beings. Pablo Picasso said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” I believe that is true. Once you do too, just imagine what you and your team will be able to create!

Are You Certain? Or Creative?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I actually don’t know, even when I am absolutely certain that I do! For example, the other day I’d planned to meet a friend for lunch at a local coffee shop. I arrived at 1 pm, the appointed time, but my friend wasn’t there. After waiting a few minutes I started wondering if she’d forgotten. She has a very busy schedule and it’s happened once or twice before. Twenty grumpy minutes later, as I’d convinced myself that she had forgotten (yet again), she texted me that she’d had a flat tire and was waiting for roadside assistance. Boy was I wrong! But I had been so certain that I knew why she was late.

Think about a time something like that happened to you. You probably went through a pretty similar thought process: you were certain that you knew what was happening based on past experience…which you then found out was wrong! We experience this all the time – in our personal lives and our work lives: under the guise of being certain we make all kinds of assumptions based on the conclusions our brain leaps to from our prior experiences.

Why do we do this?

Because our brain is wired for certainty. Certainty makes our brain feel good! And when our brain feels good so do we! And the better our brain feels, the more likely we are to want to continue to be certain! Since our brain loves certainty so much, it’s important to work hard to consciously realize that we are often making assumptions under the guise of certainty.

Here’s why.

Being certain prevents us from asking the questions of our customers – and ourselves – that will allow us to deliver the specific value that each of them wants and needs. Making assumptions disrupts our ability to think and act creatively because we believe we know – based on our past experiences – what our customers want now and how we can – or can’t – deliver that. But there are many possibilities. And discovering and trying out those possibilities is what creativity is all about. With the speed that customer’s needs change, now more than ever, our organizations need creativity to find new and better ways to satisfy each of them so that we thrive for the long-term and fulfill our business’ unique purpose in the world.

Let’s see how this works. Think about a time in your organization that your team was trying to solve a customer service problem: let’s say late deliveries. Maybe the conversation went something like this:
Manager: We’ve had three customer complaints about late deliveries this week. Seems unusual. Anyone have any idea what’s going on?
First CSR: Yeah, we’ve had lots of customers call us late this week because they’re all on summer vacation.
Second CSR: Agreed. And when they call late, there’s no easy way for us to change the default delivery time in the online system. It’s just the way it works. Nothing to be done about it.
Third CSR: And everyone knows that delivery always slows down in the summer. Drivers are on vacation too!

Sound familiar? That’s what I thought.

In my work as a service excellence consultant and lean coach, I hear conversations like this all the time. Based on people’s past experience, they are absolutely certain they know what’s going on – and that there’s nothing that can be done. But is that really so? Or is our brain just leaping to conclusions and making assumptions?

Making assumptions, I’d say. Here’s how you can tell:
1. If your organization is like many others I’ve worked with, this conversation is taking place in a conference room, not on the service floor where the problem is occurring. And if we aren’t where the problem is happening how can we be certain of what’s really going on? Did every customer with a late delivery actually call late? How can we be sure that the delivery service is short-handed? Did we ask them? And how do we know that it’s impossible to have software changed? Have we asked IT about every possibility?
2. No – or very few – questions are asked during the discussion. Everyone simply states their opinion – or perception – based on their experiences. When I hear that, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with assumptions because not asking questions is one of the tricks our brain uses to allow us to maintain the certainty that makes us, and our brain, happy!

Unfortunately, every time we believe we are certain and ignore the fact that we’re probably making assumptions, we lose the opportunity ask the questions that will allow us to understand what each of our customers really wants and needs, how the work we do really gets done and even how the computer systems with which we interact really work. And in not asking those questions we lose the opportunity to find new and creative ways to satisfy those customers and do our work.

So how can we get better at recognizing that we’re making probably making assumptions even when we’re certain?
1. Pay attention to what you are thinking and saying. Start to notice that the thoughts you have – no matter how certain you are about them – are probably assumptions.
2. Question everything. As soon as you think something – anything – ask yourself why you think that? How do you really know it?
3. Write down open-ended questions that you could ask yourself and others:? How do you know that’s so? How can we find that out?
4. Go and see with your own eyes what’s going on where the work is being done and the problems are occurring for your customers. When you’re there you can ask questions to understand and dispel your own – and others’ – assumptions.

At first, it may feel strange to question yourself and others. Remember, our brain wants to be certain and feel good. After a while, though, you’ll find that questioning to dispel assumptions becomes a habit. And that not being certain has its own special kind of joy: the joy of an ever-deeper understanding of our complicated and complex ever-changing world, the joy of more deeply connecting with customers and the people you work together with, and the joy of creativity – of finding new and better ways of delivering service based on what each customer really wants now – not on assumptions or past experiences.

So next time you’re really certain about something, I challenge you to override your brain’s desire to feel good and, instead, ask yourself the necessary questions to find out if what you’re really doing is making an assumption.

My customers need me to be more creative so I’m working on this every day. Your customers need you to be more creative so I hope you will too.

Do You Have the Creativity Habit?

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately, and about why so many of the people that I meet and work with tell me that they aren’t very ‘creative’: that they seem to have trouble coming up with new ideas to solve problems either in their personal lives or at work.

Take, for example, a discussion I had a couple of weeks ago with Joe, a friend of mine who’s just started his first small business, a personal transportation company somewhere between a tradition taxi dispatch service and Uber. “Some things aren’t working quite the way we expected they would,” he said worriedly. The drivers that we thought would jump at the chance to work with us aren’t as interested as we thought they’d be.” When I asked why that might be, Joe paused and then answered, “The biggest problem is that right now they’re being paid same or next day for their rides. That’s what taxi drivers are used to. But the system we’ve set up has them getting payments once a week.” “If that’s the problem,” I asked, “Then why not just pay them next day in the way that they’re used to? I’m sure if you really thought about it, you could find a creative way to make it work!” Joe looked at me like I was crazy and started reeling off a long list of what I like to call ‘I cant’s’…. All the reasons why doing something that hasn’t been done before ‘can’t’ be done.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience personally or in the organization you work in. I see it happen all the time:
1. A customer calls with an unusual request and instead of coming up with a creative solution that solves their problem, your service rep gives them a long explanation about why they ‘can’t’ help: we don’t offer that service on this platform…our computer systems aren’t set up to do that…it’s not within my authority…to name just a few…
2. One of your supervisors asks a team member to complete a task they are unfamiliar with and instead of figuring out how they might accomplish it, the team member reels off all the reasons they ‘can’t’: not trained…don’t have the right software…don’t have time in my schedule…
3. You want to take up a new hobby – let’s say golf – but the list of excuses you give yourself about why you ‘can’t’ prevents you from even getting started: no time…don’t have the right equipment…too expensive..too far away…and instead of figuring out how to overcome these potential barriers, you simply give up the idea altogether…

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, what does ‘I can’t’ have to do with creativity? Creativity is a sudden inspiration that come out of nowhere! Its an instant flash of insight in which the solution to a problem ‘magically appears’ that other people have in the shower or wake up with in the middle with, isn’t it? It’s about big, new shiny things no one’s ever heard of before, right?

I don’t think so. In my opinion creativity is about figuring out how to solve those nagging, regular, run of the mill problems we run into every day. The ones that we so often tell ourselves – consciously or unconsciously – that we ‘can’t’ do anything about.

In my opinion and experience, all of us, as human beings, have to ability to be creative: that is to take knowledge and ideas that we have from previous experiences and synthesize them into ‘new’ ways of thinking about and doing things. We’re all innately creative. In order to tap into that creativity, though, we have to get rid of what I call the ‘I can’t habit’ – that voice in your head that generates the long list of reasons you ‘can’t’ find solutions to your problems or the problems your customers are having.

As we’ve all experienced, habits can be very hard to change. Especially those we’ve had for a long time. Oftentimes, we’ve had the ‘I can’t habit’ so long, we don’t even recognize we have it. It’s just become our default. So how can you work towards replacing an ‘I can’t ‘ habit with an ‘I can’ one?

Through deliberate practice.

Here’s my suggestion of how to start. As soon as you hear yourself – or one of your team members – start to list all the reasons something is not possible, STOP, and immediately:
1. Take a piece of paper and divide it in half (no piece of paper? How about the Notes function on your iPhone!)
2. Across the top of the paper, write down what you or your customer wants to happen: for example: add timekeeping to my account…have Z-folds for their tri-fold brochure…run a marathon…
3. On the left side of the paper, make a list of all the reasons your brain is telling you ‘I can’t’ – get them all out! Challenge yourself to write down as many as you can!
4. On the right side, write down at least two things you could do about each ‘I can’t’: to do that, think back to previous experiences that were similar that got solved – what did you do and how could that be applied to this situation? If you are stuck, ask a friend or family member for suggestions! It’s not cheating, it’s collaborating! Write down all ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem!!
5. Pick one thing from the right hand side ideas to start doing immediately! Once you’ve gotten rid of the associated ‘I can’t’, start working on another item.
6. Give yourself a reward for each ‘I can’t’ that you turn into an ‘I can’! You deserve it and the reward helps to reinforce the new habit!

Keep ‘practicing’ this way and soon you’ll find that you’ve replaced your ‘I can’t’ habit with a ‘let’s figure out how to do this’ habit – and that’s what creativity is all about!

Now I bet you’re wondering, what about Joe? Was he able to solve the problem his company was having? Well, the next week he gave me a call and told me how after some work, he had come up with a couple of different ways to pay drivers next day. None of them complicated or difficult – and all of them relying on experience and knowledge he had previously. “You know”, he said, “this will be a great differentiator for us. And all I had to do was really put my mind to figuring out ‘how’. It’s made me realize there’s always a way.”

So, next time you hear yourself, a team member or anyone else say, ‘that’s not possible…we can’t….” simply get out a piece of paper and help them learn to figure out how. Keep practicing and soon you’ll have the ‘creativity habit’ and so will they!

What’s In It For Me?

Hand cupped to ear to hear better against a gradated green background.

In my role teaching organizations how to deliver service excellence, I’m often asked a version of the following question: “As a service rep, (or manager, or continuous improvement coach, etc.) how do I know what my value is?”

I’m always somewhat surprised by that question because whether the organization I’m working with makes products or services, they’re all really in the same business: satisfying the customers who choose to do business with them. In my opinion, the question really isn’t “How do I know and show my value?” It’s “How do I best help others receive the value that they want and need?” In other words, instead of asking “What’s in it for me?”, the question we really need to ask is “What’s in it for others – for the people I serve?”

As organizations, focusing on others, our customers, is the way to fulfill our purpose. And If you’re a customer service organization (and in this day and age, all organizations need to be!) it’s not altruistic to think this way, it’s simply good business: without customers, we don’t have a business. Today’s customers have an infinite amount of choices of where to get their products and services: online, or in person, and there are endless, easy ways to find similar product and service offerings at competitive quality and cost.

So why would a customer in today’s market remain loyal to one company? What’s the differentiator? Service. That means we need to have a very deep understanding of what our customers really want – not what we think they want or what we want them to want – or we won’t be able to serve THEM and deliver the value that THEY want, when THEY want it, exactly as THEY want it.

Instead of focusing on figuring out what our value is, what we need to do is spend our time and energy focusing on understanding what is valuable to each of our customers. How do we get that deep understanding? It’s actually very simple. All we need to do is ASK!

And when I say ‘ask’, I mean ‘ask’ with open ears, open eyes an open mind and an open heart.

What do I mean by that?

With open eyes and ears means paying attention and being present in the moment so that we can really see and hear what our customers are telling us about our products and services. From their point of view and their experience with them, not as we assume they are experiencing them from our own, internal perspective. Pay close attention to your customer’s body language and tone of voice when they are telling you about their experience. Are they smiling or frowning? Are they smiling with their mouth but not with their eyes? How about the tone of their voice? Especially important for service interactions that take place over the phone. Can you hear stress and strain in your customer’s voice even though they are saying everything is fine? If something seems incongruent, like the customer who says everything is great, but isn’t smiling and has their arms folded across their chest, further questions to understand their experience are definitely in order!

With an open mind means listening objectively. Because serving customers involves people interacting with other people, it’s easy for us to take a customer’s experience personally. Especially if the customer is telling us something that didn’t quite go the way they wanted it to. As people, when things ‘go right’ we’re proud and want to take credit for the outcome. When things don’t go so well, it’s human nature to want to find a reason it’s not related to us! That makes it easy to have ‘selective hearing’ so that we hear only what we want to hear. However, if we don’t listen objectively, taking our own egos and feelings out of the picture, we won’t have the opportunity to understand what’s happened from our customer’s point of view.

And finally, with an open heart means listening with compassion and empathy. Our customers are human beings. People just like we are. With their own struggles and imperfections. When they are telling us what is valuable to them and what didn’t go as they expected, if we listen and respond with compassion and empathy we’re really serving their basic human needs as well as the needs our products and services provide! And isn’t that what every customer really wants? To be treated with dignity and respect as a human being?

The other night I had dinner at a popular restaurant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great experience. Anything that could have gone wrong, did. Some of our appetizers were forgotten, my friend was given the wrong main course, and everyone’s fries were cold. We had to flag down a server and then wait for new ones to be cooked. As you can imagine we weren’t very happy.

Eventually, our server came over to check on us, asking, “Everything going great? Just like you expected?” Of course, it wasn’t, but no further follow up questions were asked in response to our perfunctory nods and unenthusiastic ‘yeah, I guess so…”. And later on, when I talked with the manager she said, “I’m sorry I didn’t know about the problems. You should have asked for me earlier.” In my opinion, that’s backwards thinking in customer service. If she had proactively come around to customer tables to ASK how things were going – and listened with open ears, an open mind and open heart –  to what customers had to say about their experience (her job as a customer service manager), she would have ‘seen’ what was really happening from her customers point of view. And at that point it certainly may have been possible to do the things that would have made our experience much better.

ASKING customers about what they want, need and value becomes much easier once we stop thinking about ourselves and our value, and instead concentrate on others and their needs. It’s not easy to do. But it’s worth it. So the next time someone in your organization asks “How do I know what my value is”, I challenge you to turn the question around and help them figure out “What do your customers really value and what can you do to help them receive that value?”

As I always say, “Ask not what your customer can do for you and your business, but what you can do for your customer as the real, live human being that they are.” That’s what service excellence really means.

Karyn Ross Consulting

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