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It Is All About The Cinnamon: Linking Military Aviation Culture to Quality in Business

Frank Genco, Senior | Vice President of Strategic Planning and Business Optimization

Imagine yourself finding a consistent, repeating error/mistake in a supplier’s product or service delivery. Wouldn’t that make you think about what else they are doing wrong and charging you for? Wouldn’t you start to consider other suppliers no matter how inconvenient that might be. Now think about your own customers. Do they think that about you?

I spent the better part of my adult life as a military aviator; 20 years as a search and rescue pilot for the United States Coast Guard. In 2008 I retired and went into consulting for both the commercial and public sectors. I learned a lot over the years especially as an aviator and as a consultant. One lesson, in particular, sticks out in my mind. It was pervasive in my first career and I see a lack of it in my second career as a consultant when I work with clients and in everyday interaction with other businesses:

Little things matter and are indicative of larger forces/cultures at play within your organization. As you look at every aviation mishap, investigators always look at the “chain of events” that led to the actual mishap. Catastrophic failure of an aircraft is rarely the result of one singular action that happens in split second. Rather, it is the culmination of many different, seemingly unrelated, events that happened to line up at one moment of time to cause the mishap. Had someone been able to recognize the events or had they put into place different cultures that prevented one or more of the individual items/actions, the mishap/failure could have been avoided. However the recognition of those unrelated events can only take place if your organization truly believes that “little things matter”.

This concept is lost in so many organizations and the impact is often a loss of customer base, temporary or permanent damage to your brand, and sometimes failure of the business over time. Accepting minor mistakes becomes a cancer in your organization and like cancer it often destroys enough vital areas that it kills the business.

Again, I revert back to my time as an aviator. For those who have never seen an aviation mechanics tool chest, it is the epitome of the concept that little things matter. That is because over time, military aviators learned that leaving even the smallest of tools in an aircraft engine after a repair, can have catastrophic results. As such, every tool in the aviation mechanics tool chest has a specific foam cutout that matches the tool so that after every repair, the tool chest can be inspected to ensure all the tools have been put back in their proper place.

To get to the point where aviators think about even the little things all the time, we drive home the issue with keeping workspaces immaculate because if you want to have an organized tool chest where you can inspect to ensure all tools have been returned, you need to have an organized workspace so that if a tool is misplace, you can find it quickly as it would appear out of place. In order to have an organized workspace, you must have a clean hangar so that you can organize your workspace, so that you can find misplaced items, so you can ensure nothing is left in an aircraft that could cause a mishap.

But it doesn’t stop there. Military aviators religiously clean their hangars daily to ensure everyone only accepts a spotless hangar, an organized workspace, and a properly filled/inspected tool chest as the minimum. Anything less just isn’t acceptable to the culture. If the hangar is dirty, we often wonder what else maintenance is looking past and what issues exist just under the skin of the organization.

Ok, so now you may be saying, “Frank, I hear you and that’s great but my business does not involve aircraft. What we do or produce doesn’t have life and death implications.” Or, you may just be asking, “What about the cinnamon you mentioned in the title?” Let’s get to both of those.

When you walk around your business, do you let little mistakes “slide”? Do you accept less than perfect from your employees? What do you think your customers think when they pay you and get less than perfect in return? If your customers are not happy with your quality of service, you may have nobody to blame but yourself. If you let the little things slide, you need to ask, “what else are we not paying attention to?” What else are your customers noticing and being dissatisfied with because your organization is just “letting it slide”? Why doesn’t everyone in your organization think about catching the little things before they become big things?

This is the core concept to six sigma. Your parents probably tried to instill in you this concept when they would say, “if you don’t have the time to do it right, you have to ask yourself do you have time to do it over?” I know I heard that a lot when I was told to clean my room or other chores. Unfortunately, today six sigma courses and credentials have been diluted with teaching buzzwords in Japanese and re-visiting college statistics instead of focusing on the core ideas. We have lost sight of why it is important to not let our customers be the ones to find our mistakes. It costs us extra to rework our mistakes and it costs us our reputation and future business when we pass along this to our customers. These all lead if left unchecked to business failure.

If we had paid attention to the fact that we were continually not delivering quality to our customers, we would have noticed that we were losing current customers and not attracting new ones. Had we seen that, we would have understood why our sales were falling. In the end, we would have been more proactive to also addressing external factors in the market and could have prevented the business from failing. Most failed businesses are not the result of just one singular event but rather the results of many, somewhat unrelated events, that eventually led to the overall failure.

Ok. Ok. Now back to the Cinnamon. I will leave the names of those involved out of this. Although those who know me can probably quickly put together the facts and figure out the business to which I am referring.

I work in a fairly secure government facility that is a distance away from restaurants and other food establishments that could be frequented during the workday. As such we are basically forced to frequent a contracted business that is within the complex. The business fundamentally has a monopoly over breakfast/coffee and lunch. The only real competition is if people bring food from home.

I usually frequent the establishment with my co-workers every morning shortly after I arrive in the morning to get a cup of coffee and some oatmeal. Like most coffee drinkers who also frequent the high end coffee chains, I know have been led to believe that I must add exotic spices to my coffee to justify the fact that I am paying $4 for 25 cents worth of product. So, I pour myself a cup of coffee and then go to the “fixins” bar as I like to call it to put in sweetener, cream, and cinnamon.

The “fixins” bar is laid out according to the business’s brand specifications with two sets of spice shakers (2X cinnamon, nutmeg, and cocoa). I noticed over time that one of the cinnamon shakers was empty. Like most customers, when I picked up this shaker and noticed it was empty, I would just look for the other dispenser and use it. After this went on for a week, I felt obligated to let the business know that this particular dispenser was empty and they needed to refill it. I figured after a week of noticing it was empty, I really could blame myself for not pointing out the deficiency.

Now, I had expected that the next day the cinnamon dispenser to be filled, or at the very least not back on the “fixins” bar. Much to my chagrin, I picked up the dispenser only to find it empty, again. I let this go for another week, then two, then three. Finally I had enough so I decided to take the matter into my own hands. After all, I knew what the issue was. So I banged the lid of the dispenser on the counter top to loosen it. After all, I am a retired senior military officer. I have 2 Masters Degrees. I worked in Aeronautical Engineering. I can resolve a stuck cap on the cinnamon dispenser.

Well, after about 5 minutes of me banging the cinnamon dispenser on the “fixins bar”, the ever-helpful barista came over to me to ask what the heck I was doing. Now I offer I was completely rational in my explanation of actions. Others may say I struck a somewhat frustrated tone in my explanation. In either case, the blank stare I got from the barista and the comment of “you people misuse these things and that is why they don’t work right” led me to demand to see the manager.

The manager was much more receptive to my concepts of “quality needs to be everywhere” and then took the cinnamon dispenser from me and threw it away. She literally threw it in the garbage can in front of me. She told me that would fix the problem. Well all of this happened about 2 months ago. Guess what… led to the awe inspiring situation of there being only one cinnamon dispenser in the establishment and yesterday……it was empty. I can’t make this stuff up!

You look around the business and the employees are extremely lackadaisical. Errors occur all the time in front of management and often pointed out by the customers. Yet management lets it slide.

I have seen a huge line of customers trying to pay while a cashier sits behind the counter and does some abstract task that could wait until later instead of forcing paying customers to wait in line. With all of this going on in front of me, it has made me wonder if they really wash their hands when they make my food? Do they clean their food preparation surfaces? How fresh is the food they are serving? What else is going on that I can’t see?

All of this has resulted in people refusing to eat there despite them having a legalized monopoly on the business. People would prefer to use vending machines or haul in their lunches with them from home. What should have been a virtual “gold mine” has turned into a punch line of jokes throughout the complex. The Brand of the national chain is permanently negatively impacted throughout the National Capital Region.

Conversely, if the “fixins bar” is always well stocked and the employees are always looking for ways to immediately address customer concerns, I would have extremely high confidence that things are being run just as well behind the scenes. I would look for other restaurants within the brand because of my experience. After all, it is all about the cinnamon in your business. Don’t let the failure to address the small things lead to the development of much larger issues or cultures that can cause your business to fail.

When I work with clients we tend to focus on issues of materiality to their business so that we invest time addressing those items that can have a notable positive impact on their business. However, with every issue of materiality we always uncover a series of processes or a culture that have allowed the material issue to become a material issue. Sometimes the simplest of changes at the right point can eliminate the largest of issues.

Think about the tool chest. The aircraft that crashed because the engine failed on takeoff could have been saved if the wrench was not left in the engine compartment. All it would have taken was an observant mechanic to notice the wrench was missing before he signed off on the repair and he/she would have stopped the plane from leaving the hangar. A quality culture and error-checking/preventing processes, simple to introduce, can have significant impact in every line of your business.

Don’t let an empty cinnamon shaker ruin your business!

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