When identifying continuous improvement opportunities, small defects can be a big deal to your customers

Anyone who travels often has a story to tell about an unpleasant experience with air travel.  Many of these stories revolve around weather, cancelled flights, rude passengers, sitting on a runway, etc.  I want to share a set of personal observations that prompted me to think about the perception of quality.

Actually, this particular day started out as quite routine.  The check-in, security, and boarding processes were uneventful – just the way you would like them to be!  I took my seat and soon the flight attendant was giving the usual announcements.  You know the drill…

“place your smaller items under your seats…you must be willing and able to aid the flight attendants in case of an emergency if you are in the exit row…laptops cannot be placed in your seatback pocket…”

Although I am not sure why, I casually flipped down thcoffee staine tray table in front of me. And there, staring back up at me was a large brown coffee stain.  Such a trivial thing to notice, really.  But I was annoyed.  I flipped the table back up and locked it in place, deciding that I could just wipe it off myself when the drink cart came around later in the flight.

Twenty minutes later, we had climbed to altitude.  The drink cart started down the aisle.  Since I was near the rear of the plane, I had time to make a quick visit to the lavatory.  After washing my hands in the Munchkin-sized sink, I reached for some paper towels…and the dispenser was empty! Standing there with wet hands and no towels, I was again annoyed, but even more than earlier.  After using some toilet paper to dry my hands, I exited the lavatory and returned to my seat.

I pulled down the coffee-stained table and waited for the flight attendant.  When she asked for our row’s drink order, I politely reported that the lavatory was out of paper towels.  She thanked me for letting me know.

The last disappointment came a short time later, when I reached up to turn on my overhead light to read.  You guessed it – nothing happened.  After several clicks, it was clear that no amount of persistence on my part was going to turn it on – not when either the bulb or switch was clearly faulty.

As we touched down, the pilot (or co-pilot) announced in a cheery voice that indeed we had arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule!  Normally I would have felt gratified that we safely arrived at our destination ahead of time.  But not this time.

A coffee stain

No towels

No light

These three experiences were memorable about this flight – and this airline.  None of these “defects” remotely impact safety or on-time performance of a flight.  Or do they?

If these small details are not taken care of with each flight, what can this tell us about the safety-critical items?  Is this a reflection on the quality of the maintenance that is being performed or how the bags are being handled (or mishandled)? In my mind, there is a strong connection.

Sales professionals will tell you that there are “entry-ticket” requirements to be in any market.  Often the difference between getting the order or not can be how we execute on the little details when compared to our competitors. Don’t underestimate how small things can influence your company’s image – positively or negatively. (I will write about how to understand true customer needs in future posts).

Look around.  Ask yourself, “Are there any coffee stains on our tray tables?”



About David Galloway

Dave Galloway is Founder and Principal of Continuous MILE Consulting, LLC. He blogs about leadership, continuous improvement, safety, and innovation. Dave enjoys coaching others to higher levels of performance.

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