leadership lane-assist

I’m discussing a series of personal observations and cultivated sensibilities about leadership that I call My Leadership Lane-Assist. The sensors that help drivers keep from veering out of their lane or careening off the road is an apt metaphor for the internal prompts I have developed over the years to spare myself and those I lead from personal and organizational catastrophe. Thus far, I have shared thirteen such prompts. If you’re just joining, you might want to go back to the first post in the series in order to get your bearings.

Regardless how and where you choose to jump into the conversation, here is My Leadership Lane-Assist Prompt #14:

The end user defines quality, not the product designer or process supervisor.


The Engineer and the Manager

An old joke that has been passed along in a variety of permutations illustrates this principle vividly and amusingly.

hot air balloonA man was working in his yard one day when to his astonishment a hot air balloon appeared above him and the lone passenger in the gondola shouted from above:

“Excuse me, can you tell me where I am? I’m late for an important meeting!”

The man replied, “You are in a hot air balloon approximately 100 feet above the ground and your position is precisely 34 degrees North Latitude, 118 degrees West Longitude.”

“Wow, you must be an engineer,” said the marooned balloon passenger.

“You’re right,” said the man on the ground. “How did you know?”

“Because,” he said, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I still have no idea where I am and how I can get out of this predicament.”

“Well, you must be in management, said the man on the ground.”

“Wow, you’re right, but how did you know that?” said the balloon rider.

“It’s obvious: You managed to get up there above me by means of hot air, yet you have no idea where you are or how to get where you want to go. You suddenly appear on the scene and expect me to solve your problem. The fact is, you are in precisely the same place you were before we met but now, somehow, it’s my fault!”


Defining Quality

Some years ago, our institution decided to invest in a comprehensive, integrated, state-of-the-art institutional database and student information software solution. Student data had been managed and stored via a hodge-podge of duplicate and discrepant paper and digital records repositories; student services were rendered across a dizzying maze of departmental silos; and students, faculty, and staff typically muddled along in a morass of thinly-veiled mutual exasperation. Digital Shangri-La was just around the corner … or so we naively thought.

Our Registrar and Chief Information Officer co-chaired a multi-departmental task force that devoted countless hours over a period of months to compiling a list of technical and performance specifications; researching capability and reliability; and soliciting and evaluating top-end system demos and bids. One vendor’s system emerged as the clear consensus choice. The price tag was high but the promises were commensurate. We took the plunge and made a long-term investment. What a bust!

Here’s the thing, the system itself had dazzling capabilities but the degree of effort required by clerical staff to grasp and capture those capabilities was crippling. Moreover, student and faculty experience with our institution’s registration, records, grade recording and reporting, transcript production, financial aid, payment, accounting, academic advising, and other “database-integrated” processes evolved to an ever higher and more withering morass of complexity and consternation. Those responsible to deliver services were fumbling while those who wanted and needed services (faculty, parents and, above all, students) were even more frustrated than before.

What went wrong? Simply put, our definition of “quality” was constructed by the wrong people according to the wrong criteria. We got it backwards. We minimized the role of the end user in our product assessment. And we compounded our error by primarily empowering internal and external technical experts to determine process design and quality measures. In the end, no degree of technical elegance or sophisticated capability should outweigh these simple questions: Who is the end-user? Is the end-user highly satisfied?


four starsFour-Star Advice

Horst Schultze earned his reputation as a customer service legend by means of his Ritz-Carlton hotel chain’s customer service achievements. Schultze insists that customers (end-users, if you will) — regardless of industry — simply desire three things relative to any product or service offered:

  • Timeliness
  • Defect/error-free
  • Human support

Failure to meet end-user expectations with regard to one of the first two can be mitigated by exceptional delivery of the third: Personal, empathetic attention from a human being who has the disposition and empowerment to address those failures.

What does this have to do with those of my readers who serve in Christian higher educational institutions? For every institutional product and process, I challenge you to rigorously impose upon yourself and your colleagues the following “quality” protocol:

  • Who are the primary “end-users” of this product or process (e.g., inquiry, admissions, registration, financial aid, billing and payments, advising, career services, alumni relations)?
  • What are the end-user’s expectations (not those of me and my colleagues) regarding what those stakeholders value and their particular “timeliness” and “defect-free” criteria?
  • Are the people assigned to provide these products and services disposed and empowered to own, deliver on, and assess their effectiveness in terms of the “end-user satisfaction” definition of quality?
  • Do end-users consistently report ECEE (i.e., that their experiences consistently exceed expectations)?

magnet and ballMake this your mantra: We intend to deliver world class, user friendly service with regard to every institutional system and process.

Or, to put it propositionally as a My Leadership Lane-Assist prompt:


Prompt #14: The end user defines quality, not the product designer or process supervisor.


I’ll be back soon with another Leadership Lane Assist. Just a few more to come.

If you’ve missed any posts from my Leadership Lane-Assist series, you can find them in our 4ThoughtLeaders blog pages.  Or, if you’re just tuning in, you may want to start from the beginning of the series with my Leadership Lane-Assist introductory post.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


  Exodus or Exile?

Pillar College (NJ) President David Schroeder poses a probing diagnostic question for believers during the COVID-19 pandemic season. Do we have the mindset that characterized God’s people during the exodus from Egypt or during the Babylonian exile? Both conditions entail adverse circumstances, but one liberates and the other denigrates. How will we choose to see and respond?