In Search of Evermore Simplicity

Tom Peters

Critics regularly accuse me of oversimplifying my prescriptions, which they say are too inappropriate for our messy world. My rejoinder is a counter-accusation: The critics, I argue, are not happy unless solutions are so complex that the average businessperson finds them incomprehensible. In fact, one hard-to-translate academic once said to me, “I’m suspicious of anything I can understand.”

Recently, in Atlanta’s airport, I crossed paths with a fellow simplifier, Stew Leonard Jr. He is the 33-year-old president of the fabulous Stew Leonard’s Dairy, the $100-million, family-run grocery store in Norwalk, Connecticut. Our conversation belied both his UCLA MBA and my Stanford PhD.

I asked Stew what he’d been up to of late. He said that he’d recently returned from taking a course (that he could have been teaching, though he’s too humble to admit it): a multi-day seminar offered by Disney World, on how that company trains its workers. Disney gives away all of its real secrets at the course—but the secrets turn out to be much too simple to be copied by their sophisticated students, except for the Stew Leonards of the world.

What “secrets” did Stew Jr. swipe from the Disney all-pros? “You’ve really got to care about people. They stress that over and over and over again.” “Sure Stew,” I said, underwhelmed “And what else?” “Well, teach people what’s important.” This was starting to get laughable, even by my standards as a lifelong simplifier.

And what precisely does Disney teach its employees? A thousand practical and to-the-point “tricks” that add up to legendary customer service. For example, if a worker observes a Guest (Disney’s word for customer—and don’t forget to capitalize the “G”) taking a picture of his friends in Tomorrow Land, what should the worker do? Answer: Walk over on the double, and say, “That picture would sure be a lot nicer with you in it. Can I take it of all of you?”

I must confess that I’m mightily impressed by that sort of teaching—in spite of my PhD. I admire Disney for specifically devoting much of its training to such gestures. You may recall that in a recent column, I observed that the paltry training that service firms provide is perversely wrong-headed. For instance, over 90 percent of the content deals with policies and procedures, and selling, service and interpersonal skills are virtually ignored.

Disney’s training also unequivocally focuses—via time and attention—on the firm’s overpowering commitment to spotlessness. When Stew Jr. asked his Disney instructor the theory behind repeatedly underscoring cleanliness in a training program, the fellow nonchalantly replied: “You want cleanliness, you train cleanliness.” Indeed.

My brief exchange with Stew about his Disney experience went on for another few questions like this, until I gave up in frustration. It was clear that we weren’t going to move beyond the obvious—our business degrees were looking shakier by the minute. In fact, Stew concluded by insisting that what he gained from the seminar was a vivid reminder of the importance of the basics—this coming from a person whose firm lives the basics already, with unparalleled intensity. Furthermore, it was well worth several days of class, he asserted. (I dare not think about the percent of presidents of $100-million firms who would deign to attend such programs. It would be depressing. Incidentally, Stew Jr.’s dad attended, too.)

Then I asked Stew Jr. what he was up to at the store. I shouldn’t have. He had some kind comments about material I’d recently sent him, but then obliquely pointed out that much of it had been too complicated to be of help. Nonetheless, combining his recent Disney experience and a couple of my ideas, he had developed a major new program. It centers around a series of staff meetings, intended to go forward in perpetuity, for the whole store team (600 people). These sessions—ah, sweet simplification—will “emphasize what’s important,” said Stew. That is, they almost exclusively will be devoted to surfacing, applauding and otherwise calling attention to small examples of people going that extra mile for customers.

Stew Jr.’s new program reminded me of a marvelous ritual followed by the top Domino’s Pizza franchisee (based on repeat business), Phil Bressler. “At the crew meetings,” says Phil, “I get the team together and ask each member, ‘What have you done for the customer today?’ We put up all the stories, what they’ve done, and then we vote. I give the manager [of one of his 18 franchises] who has done the best deed for the customer an award. And then I tell each manager to go give a similar award to one of their people. So they hold the same contest at their store. That gets your people to think about what the customer is.” Indeed it does. (P.S. And talk about simple and to the point!)

So you must be choking on all of this sickening simplicity by now. But bear with me for one more final tale. At the time of my airport chat with Stew Jr., he was wearing a cast on his left hand. Naturally, I inquired about it, expecting a recanting of an athletic event or a home repair effort gone amiss. I should have known better. He sliced his tendon with a butcher knife. How? Well, the store’s bakery team had come in about 5:30 one recent morning to do a special task. Stew Jr., of course, had shown up, too. He sliced his hand in the store’s kitchen, as he was making breakfast for the team. And with that story, I rest my case—for now.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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