In today’s world every business has the opportunity to do something original, to stick out. It is not that hard. Or is it?
In today’s world every business has the opportunity to do something original, to stick out. And yet, when we look around we might gen an impression that many solutions out there are the direct or indirect replicas of each other. They have a similar look’n’feel, similar offers and similar standards wrapped up in a commercial slogan that might seem different but in fact tells a very similar message. Does all of it build an impression of a unique experience? Or does it rather deliver a feeling of service commoditization?
In an amazing podcast called “Quality and Wabi Sabi”, Seth Godin offers three definitions of quality: deluxness, meeting the spec and doing things the best we can. Let’s unpack it with Seth’s story as an inspiration and a guideline.
The notion of luxury was invented in the XVII century by Jean-Baptiste Colbert — a French politician who served as the Minister of Finances under the rule of King Louis XIV. Around this period France was on the verge of bankruptcy from the excessive spendings of the royal court and Clobert spent long hours working on reinstating France economy. Among many others, he issued a law that aimed to radically improve the quality of cloth manufacturing. One of his edicts declared that if the authorities found cloth quality unsatisfactory on three separate occasions, they were to tie the merchant who made it to a post with the cloth attached to him. Through this an similar legislations, Colbert initiated a new branch of French industry: luxury goods.
Colbert understood that people will always aspire to products that are attainable only to the few. That setting a high price over an item will make it more desirable and therefore perceived as of better quality even if the objective value of that thing may not be as high. Today we still have Birkin’s bags, fight class tickets and invitation only clubs. Luxury is still out there making people aspire to it. But in the face of Internet transparency and the changing societal standards such as enoughism deluxness starts to become somewhat an old-school notion for quality.
Meeting the spec
At the dawn of the industrial era there was a need to create interchangeable parts that would enable workers to build the same product over and over again. The problem was that it is practically impossible to create parts that would ideally fit each other. Therefore, the concept of tolerance was created: leaving enough lean space for one part to fit with the other. If you try to build complicated systems like cars or other machines, it is crucial to have enough tolerance to keep the assembly line going.
What does enough tolerance mean? If you make the tolerance too narrow, it will cost’ya. You will run a risk either of discarding several parts before you find the one that fits in or you will need to slow the production process down. Thus early industrial products were built with wide tolerances to ratchet up production. The netto result was low quality though: cars that drove 20 000 km before falling apart. Actually, we still experience this philosophy albeit in the new edition. Have you ever purchased a product (a refrigerator, printer, coffee machine) that would break exactly one week after its warranty expires? What else it is if not low quality based on the high tolerance of what longevity of a product means.
After the WW II an American professor William Edward Deming came up with a new definition of quality. He said that in order to raise the quality standard you need to make the tolerances more specific by creating clear specifications and derive a certain level of excellence every step of the way. He tried to convince American companies to follow through with this idea but it got completely discarded. Deming then went to Japan, where he convinced the concerns of Nissan and Toyota to apply his recommendations. Today he is seen as a father of Japan post-war economic miracle of 1950 – 1960, when the country became the second-largest economy in the world. It was about the same time when Toyota offered more quality as a car than Rolls Royce, which still stood as a symbol of deluxness.
Deming’s philosophy led to the creation of LEAN and Six Sigma practices encapsulated in Deming’s 14 points For Management. It’s main take away is this: — “With better quality and lower cost you will take over the market”. He also saw that the ultimate way of achieving the ‘according to spec’ quality was through industrialization of the organization into a well-functioning machine. He spoke of the constant improvement of processes rather than putting out fires, looking at the system rather than solving isolated issues and about explaining to each person what her job and responsibility is rather than just giving them tasks to fulfill. In such a way a company was able to promise to deliver the same level of quality just faster and cheaper. This philosophy was revolutionary for the industrial era but is it still as applicable for the time of the Experience Economy?
There is plenty of branches of industry where meeting the spec is the ultimate goal. Think of medical systems. Or pharmacy. Or, indeed, car industry. I don’t know about you but I’d rather have my car protect me to the spec. Yet, in our ever perfecting world, going to work to do the job that meets the spec is not exactly exciting. Also having the products on the market that meet the spec to the point but not beyond feels simply boring. Today we seem to strive for something more. The clear indications of this trend can be the shocking number of DIY projects on Pinterest or the growing sales of the vinyl records. These things are not perfect. They barely follow the spec. And yet it seems that instead of perfection, many of us seek something rather different. Authenticity. Uniqueness. Irreplaceablity. Wabi Sabi.
Wabi Sabi in Japanese means: unfinished, finding harmony in what is unassuming, mysterious and fleeting. It consists of two words: Wabi that means simplicity, humility and attuning to nature, and Sabi that refers to the passing of time with its transience, beauty and authenticity of age. It is a philosophy that could be contrasted with Feng Shui that follows clear rules and recommendations. Wabi Sabi is about putting your best foot forward, doing the work that is truthful and staying humble with respect to its outcome.
How does it connect to business and Customer Experience? Wabi Sabi philosophy encapsulates the search for what is unique, for doing things differently than anybody else. Think of Southwest Airlines with their culture of embracing the skills of their employees. This is an example of doing the same thing that everybody else but differently. It is not about perfection anymore. It is about creating a new value that inspires unforgettable memories. It is about something you will remember a long time.