The Little Things

In Tom Peters’ book “The Little Big Things,” he argues that cross-functional cooperation results in measurably better results. Not new but true. We’ve seen it.

What’s different, is that Peters goes further in citing a number of seemingly little things that drive that effectiveness. For example, co-locating people. Using round conference room tables. (You can listen to a chunk of this book on the web (read by Peters) at by the way.) Ultimately, he argues that by continuously identifying and tweaking seemingly insignificant details, you eventually end up with excellence. I think this type of excellence is also very difficult for your competitors to imitate and the day they decide to, they are starting way behind you.

Anthony Bourdain in “Kitchen Confidential” makes a related point. He argues that the real heroes in a restaurant ktichen are not the high-profile celebrity chefs, because many of those can be prima donnas…you can’t function with a kitchen full of them. You really need a crew of dependable, consistent, hard-working line cooks who won’t compromise on quality, speed, or accuracy. In short, they work toward excellence by executing a lot of little things right, consistently.

In HPT, we often work with cross-functional teams because we are trying to collect and build know-how and, often, there is no one source for that know-how. I’m going to start thinking more about what little things we can do to improve that process. Not just during our meetings, but afterward.

We also target excellence in our work. In every project we think about what will make this a valuable project for the customer and for PRH Consulting. Where is a boundary where we can really push into new territory? How can we do this differently and better than last time? How can we give the customer what they meant to ask for, if they had known ahead of time what to ask for?

Also though, there are lots of little points to be made, practiced, and reinforced in training. One mention in a training program won’t generate excellent performance. One big idea in a training session might lead to changes in the business but not directly. Often, training needs to include practice and reinforcement of the little things (for example, using simulations or other learner application exercises) to build a foundation for excellence on the job. Of course, if the manager doesn’t continue the reinforcement, the change will be short-lived unless the employee carries the torch.

Both of my sons had to wear braces…one of them liked it so much, he went around twice! We went to a local orthodontist recommended by a friend (don’t remember who but thank you.) This doctor may have never read any of the business books about excellence, quality, customer-focus, etc. but he really practices what they preach and it is very much in line with the idea of focusing on the little things. For example

  • Self-check-in using a computer in the waiting room. The interface is so simple that the youngest patients can use it with ease.
  • Separate waiting area (with a closed door) for people who want to talk on their cellphones.
  • Coffee in the waiting room.
  • Usually, some kind of contest, such as guessing the number of items in a jar, identifying pictures of celebrities as kids, coloring, etc. is going for the kids ot play while waiting.
  • Occasionally, they will sponsor outings, such as free bowling or skating at certain times for patients.
  • They have a standard routine for kids when they come in so they “know the drill.” (They carry their file in, can brush their teeth, and then wait on a bench. Parents not allowed.)
  • The initial consultation involves looking at digital photos of the teeth on the doctor’s PC while he explains how and what they can/will do.
  • When you leave after an appointment, you get a print-out with a summary of the visit, a reminder of your next visit (which, I think, is in the form of a sticker for your calendar…I might be confusing this with our regular dentist though), and a section you can tear-off to give to the child’s teacher or school office as a doctor’s excuse.
  • When it is time to get your braces off, you see your name on a bulletin board congratulating everyone who is getting their braces off that week.
  • You also get a gift certificate for portrait photographs for the child when they get their braces off. One copy goes to the orthodontist who hangs it in his waiting room.
  • The day the braces come off, the office staff all gathers, claps, and presents the child with a basket representing pretty much everything they weren’t allowed to have when they had braces, including an apple, gum, crackerjack, and even (a little) candy.

By the way, this isn’t some young guy who has way too much energy and is hungry for business…my guess is that this doctor is well over retirement age…he is at least 70! And most of the ideas above really don’t take much cash to implement…just paying enough attention and then putting in the effort. In a world where people dream of retirement and winning the lottery, it is a joy to see someone with so much enthusiasm for his work at that stage of his career. I can only assume he loves people — sure it has to feel good to help others get great smiles but you wouldn’t be that good at it if you were not sincere.

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