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Urinals, Flies and System Design

March 12th, 2014

A couple of years ago I was at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on my way to a meeting in Eindhoven. As often happens when travelling I needed to use the restroom. For the most part it was like any other restroom around the world but when I addressed the urinal I noticed there was, what appeared to me (sans glasses) to be, a black image of a spider or something etched on the bowl. You probably don’t want to hear this level of detail but I need to tell you that I aimed for that image, hit it and then left the restroom after washing my hands without giving it another thought.

That is … until I recently read about the Schiphol urinal and the “black spot” in Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein’s intriguing book called Nudge.  I learned that the image is in fact a fly printed on the bowl. It seems that men don’t pay much attention when they use the urinal and consequently there is an unsightly and unhygienic mess that needs to be cleaned up at regular intervals by a restroom attendant.

urinal_croppedSome genius came up with the idea of etching the image of a fly on the bowl because he postulated that men, if given a target, will aim for it. And that’s exactly what happens. In fact it is so successful that spillage is reduced by 80%.

This is a perfect illustration of how our behavior can be changed by changing the physical environment in which we operate which is something I was recently talking about in the Web Conference I did on how to manage change. You can download the Show Notes and view a recorded video of the conference by clicking here.

Here is an example closer to home.

Many firms have a system they use after they have completed the annual compliance work for a client and before they “close” the file, which they use to review the work done and identify opportunities for providing additional value for that client.  One of the processes we recommend is based on a system we used in our own practice we called it a Work Review Checklist (WRC) we would now call this an After Action Review (AAR), a common term used in the military and which is contextually a more accurate description of what it is.

The person responsible for doing, or overseeing, a compilation and review is required to run the numbers through GamePlan or an equivalent analytical tools to get comfort that the numbers look right. Part of that process includes a requirement to run the Profit Improvement Potential module and if the PIP was greater than $100k to bring that to the attention of a partner or manager responsible for that client – let’s call that person a Client Service Manager (CSM). This was achieved by having a question on the WRC that was worded something like “Does this client have significant PIP – Y/N?  If the answer to this question is “Y” you are expected to discuss this with that client’s CSM.

Now the idea was that if there was at least $100k of PIP which also means a potential business value increase for that client could be $300k or more then we should at least alert the client to that fact and offer our business advisory services.

You would think this is a “no brainer” instruction that a team member would understand and follow to the letter.  Not so!

At the time people are completing work for a client they are focused on getting the work out the door. This means completing it in as short a time as possible and as accurately as possible so that it passes through the internal review process, gets delivered to the client, the bill prepared and the next job started. In these circumstances even well-meaning and diligent team members being aware that time is money will often mean shortcuts are taken and one of these typically is to answer “N” to the PIP question on the WRC. This happens to be an “oversight” that tends to be ignored by CSMs because they’re also very busy at that time and do not want to have a line of people wanting to talk to them about “a matter that could wait” – unfortunately these matters tend to wait forever.

But all that will change by tweaking the system in a very small way. First, the analytical software was  amended to have a 1% button added so all the operator had to do was click that button and see if the PIP was $100k or more; this was supplemented with more training on the use of the PIP module and the importance to the client and the firm in being able to identify the PIP. Note that all the data for this process is already loaded in the application.

Second, the system was changed from “You need to refer the matter to a CSM if the answer is “Y”” to “You need to add this client’s name to the list of business development prospects to be followed up after tax season.  The size of this list and the cumulative magnitude of the PIP was a critical firm KPI – as was the conversion rate of these prospects to BD engagements.

If the answer was “N” the system required that “You need to flag this client for discussion with the CSM.”  The idea of the “N” protocol was to be sure people actually did the analysis rather than ignoring it in their haste to get the work done and just checking “N”. As it happens the linking the KPI list of BD candidates and tying the value of the PIP to the originator is sufficient motivation for the system to be followed.

The point of this is that when you tweak your system the results can sometimes be astounding. I’m talking about a small process and wording change, the creation of a specific public KPI and some training can change the way your team members behave and in the process dramatically increase your revenue, your referral rate and your client loyalty.

So much of the BD work you do for a client comes back to changing a small number of things in the physical environment or the internal system protocols. For example by changing a telephone scrip and a sales process for a kitchen cabinet maker I helped him triple his bottom line. I convinced a printer to install two air conditioners in his plant which quadrupled profitability and saved a business partnership.  I convinced a client to paint the breakout room, and replace the toilet seat in the restroom (actually this was a pretty rough motor cycle dealer and I had to convince him to actually PUT a toilet seat on the toilet!) For a wholesale distributor I helped him reduce picking slip errors by changing the design of the order form, and replacing the computer monitor and the chair used by an order processing clerk.

The list goes on. I estimate that at least 80% of the success I had with helping clients came from tweaks to the physical environment and their system protocols. It was NOT from some massive strategic re-alignment. But one thing I learned very early on …. you’ll never get this done by sitting in your office. Nor will you get it done by having meetings with your clients – if you have a meeting with anyone, make it your clients’ team members.  These are the people who will give you a “customer experience” lens and the closer you can get to your clients’ customer interface the closer you’ll get to a BD solution. You’ve got to get out of the building!

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