Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: When is a problem a problem?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When is a problem a problem?

When is a problem a problem? Perhaps that depends on how you react to it.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe (HBR Jul-Aug 2007) says
"Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everybody to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them."
In fact, legend has Toyota American management being taught that "No problem is problem!" It is by rooting out and highlighting the challenges that advancement can be made.

In stark contrast was my experience with a hotel in Suzhou this past weekend. The hotel was part of a "luxury" hotel chain where service should be exceptional, and has proven to be such over a number of extended visits in other countries. With no interest in bashing the chain (though I can not recommend this particular hotel) we'll leave it unnamed.

Front desk service was efficient but not welcoming. Room was pleasant. Complimentary fruit was one orange, one apple and one (sad looking) peach. Complimentary water was two small bottles - barely adequate for two people for 24 hours. Ashtrays by the elevators (on the nonsmoking floor) not cleaned for more than 12 hours. All of which could have been ignored had the dinner buffet come anywhere close to expectations.

Not feeling drawn into any of the nearby restaurants, we headed back to the dinner buffet expecting the usual superior (at least for buffets) experience normally found at this brand. Arriving at 8 PM, we found the sashimi tray emptied, but not removed. The limited hot western dishes had barely any food left in them, the roasted duck was dried bones, the roasted vegetables were parched from sitting under the heat lamps too long, empty salad bowls, empty fruit bowls, missing utensils, etc. When I discovered that the osso buco had been sitting there so long it was cold, a manager was demanded.

The response went through a series of apology for a poor experience and queries on whether the food we did eat was good. No attempts were made to rectify the disastrous appearance of the buffet line. When the dessert area was found to be equally pitiful and not maintained, the manager was again shown how the expected standards were falling flat. The response this time was to deliver to our table (after we'd finished dessert) a plate of sashimi and a roasted duck. Sending it away and refusing to pay for the dinner, we once again received apologies and an assurance that future evenings would be better.

Meeting with the Duty Manager, we, again, received apologies ... and no sense that the situation would be analyzed and resolved - that a solution would be found. The breakfast buffet line proved to be only marginally better organized than the dinner buffet with empty plates and bowls. Followed by a repeat of the apologies from the Food and Beverage manager and a wish that we could return for a better organized dinner. The problem still a problem.

It is perhaps culturally appropriate that the response is to mollify, to seek to set right our particular situation. Thus, the apologies delivered, food prepared and a compensatory box of chocolates. Some customers might find this satisfactory. I find it infinitely more satisfying when the problem is identified and clear efforts are underway to rectify the underlying cause.

As you look at your situation, are you welcoming problems as opportunities for improvement? Or just mollifying the customer? Which is the right approach for your organization?

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