For a sustained success in business, try simplicity


January 30, 1995|By TOM PETERS

"What is your idea of perfect happiness?" Ask me, and I'd ramble for 10 minutes. Ask author Fran Lebowitz, and she'll answer: "Silence."

I was taken by Lebowitz's responses to a Vanity Fair questionnaire. For example:

What is your most treasured possession?


Who is your favorite hero of fiction?


I believe my reaction is common: awe in the face of brilliant, unexpected simplicity. The world is a complex place. Nonetheless, most things we admire, from the VW Beetle of 1965 to the Macintosh computer operating system of 1985, we admire because of their simplicity.

I recently finished filming a show for public television, entitled "Service With Soul," featuring five organizations. Though their businesses range from police work to plastics, they have one thing in common: startling simplicity and profound clarity of purpose.

* K. Barchetti Shops.

One consultant says Katherine Barchetti's men's and womenswear shop in Pittsburgh (which averages $800 per square foot in sales vs. an industry average of $220) is the best retail operation he's found in more than 800 cities. The reason: All of Barchetti's and her staff's attention is focused on the customer.

Barchetti's use of database marketing, for example, is as phenomenal as Nintendo; it's barely an exaggeration to claim there's nothing she doesn't know about her 30,000 customers. Barchetti's salespeople, who are measured six ways daily on customer satisfaction, are selected with the care normally associated with entrance to medical school. The anointed are then molded into full-blown retailers.

"Make a customer, not a sale," says Barchetti. You can smell her customer commitment -- and the absence of any distractions thereto -- from miles away.

* De-Mar Plumbing.

Larry Harmon is to plumbing what Michelangelo was to ceilings! He offers 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-per-year service (with no extra charge for off-hours calls), gift certificates, discounts for seniors, spotless trucks equipped with the sort of communication equipment you'd expect on the space shuttle -- and a point system for service advisers (plumbers) that stresses, shades of K. Barchetti, making a customer for life, not a one-time sale. Every action at De-Mar is targeted unmistakably on the customer.

* Nypro.

The cutthroat injection-molded plastics business defines the term commodity. Yet Nypro of Clinton, Mass., with 22 plants worldwide, has found a way to stand out.

In 1989 boss Gordon Lankton decided to shoot for the moon. The industry standard at the time was 10,000 defects per million, yet Lankton chose to adopt the so-called six sigma standard (3.4 defects per million).

That meant firing, in effect, about 90 percent of his 800 customers -- and focusing unflinchingly on about 30 (e.g., Baxter International, Gillette) sophisticated enough to appreciate his extreme quality commitment.

* Chicago Police Department.

The CPD was a slave to the 911 number, says Superintendent Matt Rodriguez. The 13,000-officer force made lots of arrests, but citizens' fear of crime continued to soar.

The CPD's answer: the biggest experiment in community policing in the United States. The basic idea: "Do it with the community, not to the community." The cops are getting much closer to their customers -- the people on their beats -- and spending much more time working with neighborhoods on crime prevention.

* Southwest Airlines.

I've reported before on Southwest's magical combination of a focused system (short hauls, one type of aircraft, no frills, no baggage transfer) and spirited service (hire attitude, not credentials).

Sure, a host of incentives and systems are required to keep these operations on course; and each top boss adds new twists all the time.

Nonetheless, the core idea in each case could readily be understood by an 8-year-old (e.g., kids in the neighborhoods being served by the Chicago Police Department).

My examination of these five companies has led me to study haiku, the extraordinary 17-syllable form of Japanese poetry. My objective was to try to come to understand simplicity.

A leading character in a novel by the great Russian writer, Turgenev, penned a one-line suicide note: "I could not simplify myself."

While suicide is not the answer if the clarity of your strategy falls short of Larry Harmon's plumbers or Chicago's cops, I believe that simplicity may be the single most important key to sustainable business success.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536

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