Design for service

Henry Corrado

Open Valve = Success

One of my first job assignments was designing systems for a major U.S. loudspeaker manufacturer. A small farewell gathering was organized after a few weeks at the company's headquarters. On this occasion, I was presented with a special gift: a small plate supporting a piece of pipe split down the middle by a tap. Commentary on the plate was "open valve = success".

It took me some time to understand the meaning of this symbol, and more to evaluate its impact on my professional life: common wisdom recommends adjusting the valve to a minimum, and taking measured risks. This is true not only in business but in social interactions as well. The consensus seems to be "give little, and get little in return."

Generosity and design
This "scarcity" approach does not work in a show business, such as an amusement park. As we have written in the past, profits in a Theme Park come once the attraction is built, when the majority of the budget has been spent. The leeway to cut costs subsequently is virtually nil.

Designing a good show requires two qualities: empathy and generosity. Empathy implies first understanding customers’ expectations and desires, and then exceeding them with a product which has been freed from the constraints and desires of its creators. Generosity means fully opening the tap, getting involved, taking risks and exploring all options, including the most outlandish. This in no way means spend lavishly, but rather save money by doing it right the first time. In the words of Dieter Rams "attention and accuracy in the design phase are the mark of respect for the customer". A good attraction exudes the passion of its creators, rather than the millions that have been put in it.

Generosity and service quality
In her article on service quality, Floortje Bertus explains how the attitude of the staff conditioned her day at the park. Her findings could be applied in the same way to a hotel, restaurant, airline or any service business.
We have all been faced with the frustrating experience of impassive employees, incapable of making any decisions to resolve difficulties. They mostly invoke the application of rules or procedures, which preclude common sense, to fix the situation. The reasons are multiple and complex, but we can mention two key factors:

- Lack of trust
As in any social system, organizations prefer to implement procedures to protect themselves against the risk of employee abuse, even if it means disappointing customers
If a park employee is given the opportunity to respond to the legitimate complaint from a customer by offering free tickets or a plush, it turns the bad experience (e.g a closed attraction) into a positive one. In the era of social networks, it is likely that the first thing the family will do once back home is to relate the event on Facebook. Unfortunately, few organizations have enough confidence in the good judgment of their employees to let them decide. To avoid inappropriately distributed free tickets, they would rather have powerless employees confront infuriated customers, knowing too well that bad publicity will follow. Open the valve is once again a good strategy: to demonstrate confidence in employees by giving them the opportunity to go beyond customer expectations. A major U.S airline and a car rental company have decided to introduce the possibility for call center employees to provide upgrades or free tickets to resolve conflicts. It turns out that employees rarely distribute those free perks. It seems that just the ability to use that option creates a better dynamic in solving issues, probably by avoiding escalation.

- Employees treat customers in the same the way they are treated
With a little practice, it is easy to feel the dynamics prevailing in a hotel or a park just after passing through its gate. It is likely that the unpleasant employee is not evil by nature. He is probably the last element of a dysfunctional hierarchy with contemptuous leaders at its top. Isn't that heartbreaking from an organization that is supposed to distill happiness? In contrast, a clear vision orchestrated by playful leaders makes miracles. This is the case when the valve is fully open, which implies an apparent loss of power that only accomplished leaders can handle.

Generosity and technical
Can we apply the same "open valve" approach to technical system design? Certainly. We believe that a well-designed system feeds the artistic creativity of its owner and vice versa. Our approach can be summarized in two words: simplicity and headroom. We spend hours ensuring that the systems we devise are the simplest possible. As with cooking, we think just a few good quality ingredients make the best recipes. We are also quite generous when it comes to dimensioning things. We believe that more is better, knowing that the extra cost will be nothing compared to the headaches caused by a poorly calibrated system. As we like to say, performance defines price, price does not define performance.

In short
Whether artistic, management or engineering, only a clear vision based on sound principles can provide the opportunity to "open the valve" and take the risks inherent to long-term success.