Friday, 20 May 2011

A janitor or a VP?

Everyone who knows me has learned by now that I’m an evangelist. Not for any particular religious belief, although the subject of my evangelical fervour is often referred to as a cult, but for something much more down to earth. The Apple.

Not the fruit although they’re of course delicious and healthy, something much more profound. Apple technology.

I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook, nearby sit both an Apple iPhone and an iPad. With the exception of a few boring computers at the office wherever possible the technology we use is Apple based.

Of course a part of this is the brand. Apple employ a guy called Jonathan Ive as head of design and the man is a walking, talking design God. He has lead the design of some of the most iconic consumer items of the last 15 years from the first iMac to the latest iPad. Apple is a company that places the “soft side” of a product up there as high as the functionality. Their philosophy is that while a device obviously has to DO lots of things it’s just as important to consider HOW it does those things. An example of this is that not once in all my time using an Apple product have I ever had to read a manual. They don’t even come with manuals these days because they’re simply not necessary. You just USE an iPhone, an iPad or even a laptop. No education seems to be needed.

Now of course there will be some people who think they know about technology who’ll complain that they’re not compatible with the rest of the world, that it’s difficult to use them in a non-Apple environment. That’s just nonsense. I’m writing this using Microsoft Word on a Mac, just as I use Microsoft Excel. In fact the Apple versions of these products are better than the Windows versions. I can use any Windows software I like on the Mac and so far there’s been nothing I haven’t been able to do perfectly easily. And, above all my computer is a hell of a lot sexier than anything running Windows.

Part of the appeal of Apple is the technology, another major part is, as I’ve said, the massively intuitive ease of use. Another part is simply the brand. Steve Jobs, the founder and leader of Apple has constructed an almost mystical brand for his company. I find myself reacting sometimes in an almost cult member-like way when the rumours spread that Steve is going to announce a new product. Luckily, unlike many religious cult leaders, he doesn’t claim to be divinely inspired or even perfect in his, and his company’s, performance. Every so often there’s a mistake, a problem, a cock-up. However Apple are usually fairly quick to remedy them when they occur.

Recently there was an article about Apple by Adam Lashinsky in Fortune magazine that was reported elsewhere. There were various interesting points but the one that had the greatest impact on me was an anecdote about Steve Jobs and the way he treats his many Vice Presidents. Apparently Jobs is known to welcome new VPs with a personal meeting and a speech about responsibility.
“Jobs imagines his garbage regularly not being emptied in his office, and when he asks the janitor why, he gets an excuse: The locks have been changed, and the janitor doesn’t have a key. This is an acceptable excuse coming from someone who empties trash bins for a living. The janitor gets to explain why something went wrong. Senior people do not. “When you’re the janitor,” Jobs has repeatedly told incoming VPs, “reasons matter.” He continues: “Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering.” That “Rubicon,” he has said, “is crossed when you become a VP.”
I think that’s a very important point that needs to be understood by anyone senior in business. There comes a point when excuses aren’t acceptable any longer. There is a level of seniority when your boss and, critically, your customer doesn’t have to take excuses. Frankly I don’t care why, for instance, a furniture store completely ignore a customer who has reported that her recent purchases are faulty and has yet to have them repaired. I’m happy to listen to the employee in the store who says she’s still waiting for a response from her manager but the manager isn’t entitled to give excuses for poor performance or failure. His job is to provide solutions, not pathetic excuses why things haven’t worked properly.

I think it’s critical for us all to understand this. We don’t always have to accept excuses. There comes a time when we can just demand a solution. We’re entitled to say things like “I’m sorry, I’ve already had excuses from your junior staff but you are senior enough to just fix this problem so please just do that.”

If more managers were required to do this either by their bosses or simply by consumers like you and me then problems might just get fixed much quickly and with a lot less fuss. Next time a senior manager fails you why don’t you ask them if they’d feel more comfortable being a janitor?

This week’s stars
  • Pilane at Air Botswana check in at SSKIA for friendliness and cheerfulness.
  • Zaheed at Bytes Technology for his patience and for fixing a customer’s internet connection over the phone.
  • Neil and the team from HiFi Corporation for fixing a customer’s problem swiftly and even giving him a voucher to say sorry for a mix-up.

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