Category: Business Strategy

Forget Facebook, Pshaw Pinterest, Toodaloo Twitter: Bringing Social In-house

social media thinkingDespite the pithy title of this post, I’m not actually anti social media. Nor am I in any way predicting its demise. And while I’m disclaiming, let me also say that I don’t consider myself a social commerce expert. But I have been doing retail for almost 28 years and have been involved in e-commerce for about 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

And I don’t think we’ve been looking at social in the right way.

The numbers bandied about are spectacular and tantalizing. If Facebook was a country, it would be the third biggest in the world! Over a billion users! But if you think a little deeper about them, they don’t hold up as well. You hear over a billion users and you think that’s Super Bowl audience type numbers. But it’s really not. It’s actually more like 1 billion niche cable channels. You can’t really put a single message out and connect to all of those people in one shot.

There’s lots of talk about the average of 230+ friends each person has and an assumption that our customers will share their shopping experiences with their friends. And they do at times. But those  friends are not all equally influenced by those shares. A number of my Facebook friends are old friends from high school that I connected with once but am otherwise not highly connected. So how open are these types of friends to anything I might share?

Another of my favorites is “time on site.” The average time on Facebook exceeds Google. But what does that mean? And is that a reasonable comparison point? Google is actively trying to get people to click away from their site. That’s how they get paid.

Yet, still, there’s something there. Governments are being toppled with the aid of social media. That’s pretty powerful. So what can we do with it?

social revolution

Well, we retailers tend to be like hammers that see everything as a nail. So we want to figure out how to put a cash register on it. And we’ve seen some highly publicized Facebook stores like 1-800-Flowers and Best Buy’s various attempts. But so many of these have seemed to result in no sales.

OK. Maybe not a store. Then what?

We’ve been flailing about some trying to figure something out. We’ve asked silly questions, and people respond. We’ve tried to amp up our customer service in these channels, and that has been good for PR. We’ve tweeted lots of fun facts and tips. But Twitter is like a river, really. So much is flying past so often, I really have to wonder how much anyone really sees. We have videos on YouTube with some great content that’s fun to watch, and now we’re seeing decent action around shopping on Pinterest.

So some of the stuff we’re doing seems to have some branding value, but I’m not sure we’re making the most of it. For most retailers, orders attributed to social media as a last touch are basically non-existent. But maybe, you might say, click tracking might not really tell you about influence. OK, we asked our customers at Sur La Table. Their self-reported answers say they’re a little more influenced than click tracking would suggest, but it’s nothing to write home about.

Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a lot of power in the idea of bringing people together with the help of some social technologies.

I’m always thinking about what I call the customer engagement cycle. The last step, Referral, is really the Holy Grail. If we can get our best customers to be our best marketers and merchants, we can make that cycle much more efficient and effective. And our customers are WAY more credible than we are. A recent Gallup Honesty poll ranked Advertising practitioners BARELY higher than Members of Congress! Yikes!

Seth Godin gave an amazing speech to the music industry several years ago as the record labels were seeing their businesses tuned upside down by digital downloads – legal and illegal. People were freaking out. But he provided another avenue (one not really taken, but that’s another story) that was largely about the underlying principles of “social.”

He said, and I paraphrase:

“People don’t listen to companies, they listen to people. And, there is something magical about the connection between one person and another person.

There is a large number of people who want to be led…who want to connect…who want to join a tribe.

And you have the ability, from where you stand, to make some of those connections happen.”

So maybe the idea of social is right, but we’re just doing it wrong. Or at least we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If we want to use social to get cash flowing into the registers, I think we need to look at the opportunity differently.

context mindset purposeI think there are three specific conditions we need to be successful: context, purpose and mindset.

I think context becomes incredibly important. All the social media channels out there have plenty of value for branding, messaging, etc. We run into trouble when we try to make them transactional. Maybe that’s not the best way to use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. But that doesn’t mean the idea of “social” can’t benefit transactions. I think it just means we have to implement social capabilities in the right place with the right context. And our sites are different from our Facebook pages, which are different from our stores.

And that’s because each of these environments were constructed for different purposes and as a result customers have different purposes in mind when they visit each. On Facebook, it’s more about seeing what friends are up to and maybe also engaging with some favorite brands. So while people may see our new products or promotions, at the same time they’re also looking at cute babies, political rants, and embarrassing drunken photos that never should have seen the light of day. Our messages can get obscured pretty quickly.

Whereas people coming to our stores and our sites are purposely looking for products, whether to research or buy. They’re pretty open to learning about new products and they’d love to hear about promotions. They have a completely different mindset. And that attitude and inclination can make all the difference.

The mindset when using Facebook and other social media is largely about entertainment. Keeping track of friends, seeing photos, etc. is fun and entertaining. But there’s a lot going on there, and nothing really holds your attention for too terribly long. And even though there is interactivity, it’s still largely passive. But going to a retail store or site is all about shopping and checking out the products! When customers come to our stores, they are clearly much closer to a buying mode than we could expect when they’re just being entertained by social media.

So it’s that sweet spot where that the right context, purpose and mindset meet that we might have the best opportunity to unleash the power of social media. And really, we’ve already proven that some of our best conversion tactics are rooted in concepts of social. For example, customer reviews are a very effective way for people to connect to each other. According to a Nielsen study last year, 70% of people trust customer reviews, and that trust factor is on the rise. Even recommendations are basically a form of social since they’re based on what other people have done. They’re especially social and effective when we frame them as “People who viewed this also viewed” or something similar.

So how do we take these ideas to the next level?

How can we take Seth Godin’s sage advice and find ways to connect our passionate customers from across the country with each other under our brand umbrella?

At Sur La Table, we think we can do that with something we’re calling “My Collections.” The idea is that customers will be able to create – and share on SurLaTable.com – collections of our products. In a sense, it’s a bit like Pinterest on our site. We worked with our partner, 8th Bridge, to create this fun new feature that combines the credibility of customer reviews with the discovery elements of recommendations to take the power of social on our sites to a new level. And it’s really taking off. Customers have quickly created tons of collections to share with other customers, and they’re already demanding new features like the ability to comment more on their collections and the ability to more easily find other collection creators like them. Luckily, these are features we’re already working on!

We’ve also gotten our staff involved. We employ chefs in a lot of stores, and we certainly have them creating and sharing collections. We’re going to work to involve big name chefs we have relationships with. Certainly our store associates are participating. And not only do they create content, but they also benefit from the content created by others. It’s useful for them to learn how customers are putting our products together, and it helps them create ideas for their customers.

We’re really excited about where all of this is going, and I hope you are, too.

What do you think? How are your social programs generating value for your company? Have you tried anything that worked well? Did context, purpose and mindset play a role?

 

The 3 Levels of Metrics: From Driving Cars to Solving Crimes

Business-MetricsYou can’t manage what you don’t measure. That’s a long-time business mantra espoused frequently by my good friend Larry Freed. And it’s certainly true. But in an e-commerce where we can effectively measure our customers’ every footstep, we can easily become overwhelmed with all that data. Because while we can’t manage what we don’t measure, we also can’t manage everything we can measure.

I’ve found it’s best to break our metrics down to three levels in order to make the most of them.

1. KPIs
The first and highest level of metrics contains the Key Performance Indicators or KPIs. I believe strongly there should be relatively few KPIs — maybe five or six at most — and the KPIs should align tightly with the company’s overall business objectives. If an objective is to develop more orders from site visitors, then conversion rate would be the KPI. If another objective is about maximizing the customer experience, then customer satisfaction is the right metric.

In addition to conversion rate and customer satisfaction, a set of KPIs might include metrics like average order value (AOV), market share, number of active customers,  task completion rate or others that appropriately measure the company’s key objectives.

I’ve found the best KPI sets are balanced so that the best way to drive the business forward is to find ways to improve all of the KPIs, which is why businesses often have balanced scorecards. The reality is, we could find ways to drive any one metric at the expense of the others, so finding the right balance is critical. Part of that balance is ensuring that the most important elements of the business are considered, so it’s important to have some measure of employee satisfaction (because employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction) and some measure of profitability.  Some people look at a metric like Gross Margin as the profitability measure, but I prefer something deeper down the financial statement like Contribution Margin or EBITDA because they take other cost factors like ad spend, operational efficiencies, etc. into account and can be affected by most people in the organization.

It’s OK for KPIs to be managed at different frequencies. We often talk about metrics dashboards, and a car’s dashboard is the right metaphor. Car manufacturers have limited space to work with, so they include only the gauges the most help the driver operate the car. The speedometer is managed frequently while operating the car. The fuel gauge is critically important, but it’s monitored only occasionally (and more frequently when it’s low). Engine temperature is a hugely important measure for the health of the car, but we don’t need to do much with it until there’s a problem. Business KPIs can be monitored in a similarly varied frequency, so it’s important that we don’t choose them based on their likelihood to change over some specific time period. It’s more important to choose the metrics that most represent the health of the business.

2. Supporting Metrics
I call the next level of metrics Supporting Metrics. Supporting Metrics are tightly aligned with KPIs, but they are more focused on individual functions or even individual people within the organization. A KPI like conversion rate can be broken down by various marketing channels pretty easily, for example. We could have email conversion rate, paid search conversion rate, direct traffic conversion rate, etc. I also like to look at True Conversion Rate, which measures conversion against intent to buy.

Supporting metrics should be an individual person’s or functional area’s scorecard to measure how their work is driving the business forward. Ensuring supporting metrics are tightly aligned with the overall company objectives helps to ensure work efforts throughout the organization are tightly aligned with the overall objectives.

As with KPIs, we want to ensure any person or functional area isn’t burdened with so many supporting metrics that they become unmanageable. And this is an area where we frequently fall down because all those metrics and data points are just so darn alluring.

The key is to recognize the all-important third level of metrics. I call them Forensic Metrics.

3. Forensic Metrics
Forensic Metrics are just what they sound like. They’re those deep-dive metrics we use when we’re trying to solve a problem we’re facing in KPIs or Supporting Metrics. But there are tons of them, and we can’t possibly manage them on a day-to-day basis. In the same way we don’t dust our homes for prints every day when we come home from work, we can’t try to pay attention to forensic metrics all the time. If we come home and find our TV missing, then dusting for prints makes a lot of sense. If we find out conversion rate has dropped suddenly, it’s time to dig into all sorts of forensic metrics like path analysis, entry pages, page views, time on site, exit links, and the list goes on and on.

Site analytics packages, data warehouse and log files are chock full of valuable forensic metrics. But those forensic metrics should not find their way onto daily or weekly managed scorecards. They can only serve to distract us from our primary objectives.

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Breaking down our metrics into these three levels takes some serious discipline. When we decide we’re only going to focus on a relatively small number of metrics, we’re doing ourselves and our businesses a big favor. But it’s really important we’re narrowing that focus on the metrics and objectives that are most driving the business forward. But, heck, we should be doing that anyway.

What do you think? How do you break down your metrics?

 

Employee Satisfaction Leads to Customer Satisfaction (and Big Profits)

“Companies with strong consumer branding outperform Standard & Poor’s index.  It’s a lesser known fact that companies with a high rating from both consumers and employees double that return.”
Carol Parish, Enterprise Global Brand Agency

Employee Hierarchy of Needs

Employee Hierarchy of Needs

I actually considered calling this post, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In the same way that mothers are often the key connector in familial relationships, employees are the key connector in the relationships between a company and its customers. As a result, if our employees aren’t happy, our customers won’t be happy with our companies and our companies won’t be happy with the business results.

For some reason, the topic of employee satisfaction has come up in a multitude of conversations I’ve had lately. I recently had a great one with my most excellent colleague at ForeSee Results, Maggie Kalahar. Maggie had this to say:

“Employees shape the experience a customer has with your company each time they have contact, making employees the most memorable voice of your brand as they constitute the actual brand Maggie Kalaharexperience.  It’s people who ultimately deliver your brand promise.  It does not make a difference what you tell your customers about your brand if those who actually encounter the customer don’t deliver the values consistently.  For example, one poor experience with a rude sales associate at Retailer X can undo millions of dollars of brand advertising touting “The Friendly Faces of Retailer X”.  On the other hand, when employees deliver a positive experience consistent with your brand promise, your customers will in turn become stewards of your brand as well, translating to dollars for your company.”

Given the huge importance of satisfied employees in the overall success of a company, it’s surprising that more attention isn’t paid to employee satisfaction as a key financial driver. (And by the way, I’m certainly not guiltless. Sadly, it’s taken me way too many posts about other topics before getting to this important topic.)

All too often, we take our employees and their job satisfaction for granted. We focus all the power of our Type-A personalities on achieving financial results, acquiring new customers, launching new businesses, and driving customer satisfaction, but too often we forget about the people who actually turn all those action verbs into real-life actions.

We spend lots and lots of time considering our brand messaging, and we even spend a lot of time teaching our brand stewards (our front line employees, in particular) how to message our brand. But how much time do we spend ensuring our employees have the tools and the environment they need to effectively deliver our brand promises (as well as the actual desire to deliver the brand promises)? Sure, HR probably talks about it all the time, but this is not an HR issue.

This is really about the basic service every manager in an organization should provide to his or her staff in order to achieve those financial goals.

I previously mentioned putting employees first (even before customers) as one of the keys principles of a customer centric organization. The base principle is really the same as when flight attendants advise us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting our children. If we don’t provide a productive, positive environment for our employees, how can we expect them to provide the right environment for our customers?

But, man, satisfying employees is hard!

Providing the type of consistent environment required to really satisfy employees is actually a lot harder than providing the type of experience that satisfies customers. The reality is employee relationships are more interdependent, frequent, intense and intimate than the relationships we have with even our best customers. And we have so many more interactions with employees, any one of which can potentially derail the relationship if we don’t handle it correctly.

So what do we need to do to satisfy employees?

In my experience, the things that make the biggest differences are not parties, free lunches or even bonuses. Those things, while good and worth doing, are fairly temporary. They come and they go and they can be quickly forgotten if there are problems in the basic working environment.

I think the tenets of great working environments are really more akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s pyramid starts with physiological needs and progress through safety, belonging, esteem and ends with self-actualization.

The Employee Hierarchy of Needs, if you will, contains a similar progression to ultimate satisfaction:

Basic tools
Certainly, a company’s employees need to have the basic tools to do their jobs. Those tools could be computers, uniforms, office supplies, etc. I don’t think many companies have big problems at this level. I would even add being paid a fair wage here. There can be little question that pay is an important aspect of any job. But getting the pay right is part of the very basic level of the working environment.

Trust and Respect
Trust and respect are the foundation of pretty much all successful human relationships, and it’s certainly no different in employee relationships. One of the best ways to assess the levels of trust in an organization is to examine assumptions regarding intentions. Do policies and procedures seem to assume the employees act on their best intentions or their worst intentions? In other words, are the policies in place mostly to ensure employees don’t do things they shouldn’t do, or are the policies in place to ensure employees have the right environment to do the things they should be doing.

Respect can certainly be gauged by how we treat each other. Do we follow the Golden Rule? In the workplace, one of the best ways to test Respect is in how input is heard from various members of the team. Are people’s ideas, when presented with thought and backed with supporting evidence, taken seriously? For the record, I don’t think “taken seriously” necessarily means the ideas are always accepted and implemented. However, if the idea is ultimately rejected, it should be rejected with the same or better level of thought and supporting evidence. To me, that’s taking an idea seriously and respecting the generator of the idea.

Matching the “A”s
This one is critical, and a mismatch here is often the source of some of the biggest problems I’ve seen during my career. The “A”s are Accountability and Authority. Many positions have job descriptions, but I’m talking about something a lot more specific and meaningful. I’ve found it’s critically important to be very, very clear about what each and every person in the organization is accountable for. This takes a lot of careful thought. Once we’ve defined those accountabilities, we have to ensure each person has the authority to deliver those accountabilities. This is hard. Accountabilities will inevitably overlap in some areas, particularly in hierarchies in the organizational structure. So the accountabilities need to be defined specifically and conflict resolution paths must be predefined. (Frankly, this could be a whole separate blog post…and maybe it will be.)

All of this is made much easier if the company has the types of vision, values and objectives frameworks I discussed in a recent post. Such a centrally defined framework provides the types of guidelines for decision-making that, while not eliminating conflicts and disagreements, at least provides a solid basis for debate and resolution.

Confidence
With a solid framework for decision-making, clear accountabilities and matching authority, employees can begin to make decisions about their daily work with confidence. As those decisions become more and more effective, employees become more self-confident. I’ve always found that self-confidence is the key to success in all aspects of life. Self-confident staff find it much easier to do what’s right for customers and for the business.

Training/Knowledge/Growth
The final layer of employee satisfaction is all about growth. Companies that invest in their employees’ growth will not only have happier employees, they will have more productive employees who generate better and better ideas for improving the company. This means mentoring employees, training them in areas even beyond their current scope of responsibilities, being more transparent about aspects of the business that are interesting to particular employees and more. Creating more skilled and more knowledgeable employees has an extremely high ROI.

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Focusing and delivering on all layers of the Employee Hierarchy of Needs can lead to the type of employee satisfaction that leads to customer satisfaction and big profits (investor satisfaction?). But there’s no question that it takes constant focus and a lot of hard work.

Behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely, in his excellent book The Upside of Irrationality, ran some interesting experiments around meaningful working conditions. He found that “if you take people who love something…and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.”

We’ve all encountered employees of various establishments who’ve had their joy killed. They’re not productive and they don’t provide great experiences. We certainly want more for our teams and our companies. The alternative of course, is joyful employees, customers and investors. That’s a happy world I want to live in!

What do you think? How would you describe the Employee Hierarchy of Needs? What have you seen work and not work in your organization?

The Straight Line to Business Success

Walking in circlesDid you know that we humans can’t walk in a straight line without visual cues to keep us focused on our path? Not only can’t we walk straight, we actually walk in circles if we can’t clearly see where we’re going.

It seems we also drive our businesses in circles if we don’t have strong focal points like clearly defined visions, goals and strategies.

I learned this odd fact about humans walking in circles when listening to a recent NPR piece that covered a research paper on the topic written by Jan Souman, Ilja Frissen, Manish Sreenivasa, and Marc Ernst. According to the paper:

We tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles. We tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles (diameter < 20 m), though rarely in a systematic direction. These results rule out a general explanation in terms of biomechanical asymmetries or other general biases. Instead, they suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

It’s easy to see the parallels in our business environments. Without a clear vision of where we’re going, it’s easy for “accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system” (I love that phrase) to send us off course. In the world of retail, we’re constantly bombarded by internal and external demands for short-term change. Those demands are often driven by overly narrow data analysis (such as daily or even hourly comps), emotional reactions, gut feel, wild ideas, competitive shifts and more.

So what do we do about it?

We can’t stop the noise, but we can provide ourselves some solid focal points and guide rails to keep us on a straight path towards ultimate success.

  1. Write a meaningful, compelling, and easy-to-remember vision statement

    I’ve often personally had negative reactions to even the idea of vision statements because so often they are overly wordy and meaningless to everyone in the company who wasn’t in the room when they were developed (which is generally almost everybody). A particularly bad example would be something like: “We are committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders – clients, candidates and employees – through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible.” Too wordy. Too many buzz phrases. Not enough inspiration. Not enough meaning to most people in the company or its customers.

    All too often, vision statements like the previous example are created in a boardroom, printed on posters hung all over the company and almost immediately ignored. And then the business runs in circles.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. A carefully created vision statement can be the focal point that drives all business decision and keeps the entire company moving in a straight line to success.

    Consider the following excellent examples and how they might guide your decisions:

    Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

    Google: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

    Ritz-Carlton (they call theirs a “credo”: “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.

    We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.

    The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

  2. Develop measurable goals that lead toward the vision
    There are millions of articles online (according to Google it’s more that 3 million) that explain how to set good business goals, so I won’t go into all of that.

    But I will say just creating “SMART” goals is not enough. The goals have to also be aligned with the vision and serve as milestones along that straight walk to success. It’s entirely possible to create a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely goal that doesn’t progress us towards our vision. I suppose you could argue that “relevant” should be the attribute that aligns us with the vision, and it should be, but I’ve seen “relevance” twisted to individual agendas too often to rely on it without comment.

    So the goal has to lead us toward the vision. For example, a Ritz-Carlton hotel manager might have a goal that says “Improve lobby ambience scores on guest satisfaction scorecard from 83 to 85 by December 31, 2011.” That would be something that specifically aligns with the vision and tells the manager how well he’s walking the straight line to the success.

  3. Implement brand  and service guidelines to establish boundaries
    Brand guidelines are also critical to help us understand what boundaries we can work within on our straight line to success. I think of them almost as swim lanes. We might not swim perfectly straight, but as long as we stay in our lanes we’ll have the latitude to deal flexibly with changing conditions while continuing to head toward our vision. Consider Ritz-Carlton’s 12 service values:

    1. I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.
    2. I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
    3. I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.
    4. I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.
    5. I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.
    6. I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
    7. I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
    8. I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
    9. I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
    10. I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
    11. I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company’s confidential information and assets.
    12. I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

Of course, the entire process is not as simple to implement as it is to write about. But I’ve found over the years that dedicating considerable thought to providing clear, compelling direction for all employees to follow a relatively straight line can help prevent destructive business circles and keep us on the straight line to business success.

What do you think? What types of business direction have you seen that worked best for you? Would you share some examples? How about the opposite? When have you seen it all go horribly wrong? What can we learn from those failures?

The power of a little naiveté

questioningMost of us are experts in something. Our expertise and experience are usually significant advantages that allow us to deal effectively with complex problems and situations. But they can occasionally be Achilles’ heels when they breed the type of overconfidence that causes us to overlook simple solutions in favor of more complex and costly solutions. Injecting a little naiveté into some problem solving sessions can spur new thinking that results in more effective and efficient solutions.

In my experience, experts tend to skip right by the simple solutions to most problems. Groups of experts working to solve a problem are even more likely to head directly to the more complex solutions.

Consider this example from the excellent book I’m currently reading, CustomerCulture by Michael D. Basch (thanks to Anna Barcelos for the tip):

Hershey’s Chocolate Company had a problem on its Rollo production line. It had worked with teams of employees to improve quality and had raised the consciousness of their employees around service in all aspects of the operation. This example involves a problem where the candy went through an automatic wrapping machine, and the wrapped candy was dropped onto a conveyor that dumped it into boxes to be sold in retail stores. When the box reached the specified weight, it would be shifted to a new empty box, and the process would continue.

The problem was that, all too often, empty wrappers would come out of the wrapping machine and end up in the retail boxes. These boxes had cellophane windows where the consumer could see the empty wrappers, and, although the box was sold by weight, the customers’ perception was of poor quality and the feeling of being taken advantage of.

The company put a team of engineers on the problem, and a new wrapping machine was not cost justified. Therefore, the problem became “How to get the empty wrappers off the conveyor.” The engineers then designed an elaborate vibratory conveyor system. A vibratory conveyor vibrates, and heavy things tend to move with the force of gravity. In this way, they could vibrate the filled wrappers off the vibratory conveyor to the box filling conveyor. The cost would be about $10,000 to move equipment around and to install the new system. Of greater consequence was the time. This line was working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and was still falling behind. A retrofit would stall production for a day and one-half.

Fortunately, part of the team inventing the new system was the production workers who worked the line every day. The engineers presented their solution for feedback. The next day, two production workers were discussing the problem just before lunch when one said, “I’ve got it.” The other asked, “What have you got?” “I’ll show you after lunch,” came a hasty reply as the man left the building. After lunch, he returned with a $15 fan he had purchased at Wal-Mart. He plugged in the fan. It blew the empty wrappers off the conveyor, and the problem was solved—no great cost, no stalled production.

In the end, the simple solution was both highly effective and highly efficient. I don’t know why expertise largely blinds us to these types of solutions, but maybe it’s because our training and our past experiences have been so focused on complex solutions that we just automatically go there. And when we’re discussing the problems with groups of experts, as was the case in the Hershey’s example, maybe we also just assume the others in the group have already considered more simple solutions.

Hence, the power of a little naiveté.

Too often, we associate naiveté with ineptitude, but the root of the word, naive, is really more about lack of understanding or sophistication. And that lack of sophistication can be just what the doctor ordered in some problem solving situations. I can think of many conversations I’ve had over the years with hard core technical folks where I asked a series of “dumb” questions that ultimately led to those highly trained experts developing simpler and ultimately more effective solutions.

Next time you have a complicated problem you’re trying to solve, rather than just gathering the best of the best (and only the best of the best) to discuss solutions, consider inviting a few “differently experienced” folks into the room. These don’t have to be inexperienced people in general, but rather people specifically inexperienced in the particular problem being solved. The main idea is to get some different thinking injected into the conversation. One of the main tenets of the Monkey Cage Sessions problem solving technique I’ve written about before is inviting people of different experience levels and backgrounds into a single session that allows views of the problem from multiple perspectives.

We need our assumptions to be questioned if we hope to find the absolute best solutions. Let’s tolerate a few “dumb” and “naive” questions and appreciate fresh perspectives on the problem. We might be surprised what solutions we come up through the power of a little naiveté.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered the power of naiveté in problem solving situations? Or do you think letting lesser experienced folks into complicated solution finding sessions is a waste of time?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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