The Non-Financial Side of Business

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The Non-Financial Side of Business
A call with an industry colleague last week set in motion, thoughts on how we measure individual or business success.
As a kid growing up in India in the 80’s, studies used to be quite a tricky part of life. Studying history, for instance. We had a ton of dates to remember, and it somehow never made sense. The pointlessness of remembering precise dates of events ranging from a few decades to a few centuries gone by. Instead of, perhaps evaluating people gone by, on the basis of their actions, or the sum of their actions. Perhaps we would have learnt more about values. About actions and consequences. But they would not have it any other way. Events and dates of their occurrence was clearly more important to them.
Then came interesting subjects like physics, and a few deeper questions around it. [Link]
Subsequently, there was the ’Must. Read. Newspapers’ phase. Not just that, I guess people also expected you to remember current events. For someone who is not a keen quiz player, I felt it was pointless beyond just having a fair sense of what was happening. Somewhere I believed storing irrelevant information wouldn’t really matter someday.
Then, thankfully, the internet came to our rescue.
In my adult life, all around, businesses seem obsessed with numbers. Financials. Be it sales and profitability, or costs, or more complicated ones. Cost of acquiring a customer. Shopping cart abandonment. Customer churn rate. Average profit per visitor or Product conversion rate. Among others.
The world became, and continues to be increasingly obsessed with numbers and ratios. And that’s all most businesses focus on. The employee or customer can be at the receiving end of the bare minimum that a tight-margin allowance to appease a ratio will allow. But not more.
The day machines take over a business function, efficiency will jump up dramatically, as will profitability.
But where would that leave us? Put differently, have we always been missing a bigger point?
What will matter when machines take over (finally!), is what customers really want. Because then we won’t be obsessing over the numbers. Hopefully not at least.
And hopefully then, we’ll start to see that it is not a numbers game. That business is about relevance. If it’s useful or good, they will buy. If a process is well designed as per them, they will use it.
Numbers, as I’ve always held, are an incidental, intermittent aftereffect of a non-numerical, ongoing end-user pleasing process.
I’m not saying that top and bottom lines and all those in-between are irrelevant. Sure they help as indicators. But they perhaps help more when we are doing the more important job. Of ensuring the main objective of our business is met. Once you focus on the non-financial aspects that really run your business, you’ll see how the financials catch up. Automatically!

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback
Life in present times has become an increasingly rapid process of experiences and feedback. Businesses are always asking us to rate the services or experiences they offer. And often, they feel inclined to “reward” us for it. While no one’s complaining about the free stuff or great discounts, are we losing perspective of what’s genuinely good? Because, while the feedback is certainly far more in quantity, it can’t be as clean in quality.
Why, you ask?
For starters, the moment you bribe (yes, a strong but apt word) someone for a feedback or to leave a rating or review, you’re automatically influencing the purity of the feedback, rating or review. Same goes for a 10% discount for simply “checking into” a restaurant.
Everything from a review to get the free ‘dry fruit pickle’ or a discount on the food bill, establishments are literally paying to distort their own reality of their business.
A few years ago, a friend of mine started a business, and reached out to friends on Facebook to like their business page. I was well past the years when I’d actually ask people to convince me (or at the least, fill the ‘About’ section on the page), before asking people to simply like the page. So, while I liked the page and got on with my work, some months later, seeing the 800+ likes, I asked how business was. There was none. Even though am quite sure a lot of common friends might have had a need for the products being offered. What happened, was that the Facebook page (in herd mentality), gave them a level of instant gratification, while distracting them from the core. Is, or how can I make my offerings increasingly relevant?
Recently, an entrepreneur found me online and requested a meeting to help their business turn profitable and grow faster. They had exceptional social media following and activity, which of course I didn’t take at face value. But what came next from the entrepreneur was even more disappointing. That while a lot of the followers were fake, when visiting any business page, seeing a good following gives him a sense of trust and confidence too. That justified it.
Let’s forget fake following and likes for a moment. Besides, I’ve already written a fair bit about them years ago. But consider just the fact of a business incentivizing a feedback or review that should ideally be happening without influence. Each time we do that, we willingly distort our sense of the pulse of our business.
Last month, I had dinner at one of the Taj restaurants with relatives. While the starters and main course were exceptional, the service was aloof, and one dessert was a disaster. On another occasion, when at a relatives place, I ordered butter chicken from the Butter Chicken Factory, a nearby joint. The butter chicken was terrible! I wrote reviews about the Taj dinner and the butter chicken place on Zomato (neither ratings were too terrible). Both establishments responded. The Taj staff thanked me, saying they would incorporate the inputs. And that they looked forward to having me there again soon. The city head of the Butter Chicken Factory called to understand what in my opinion, they had gotten wrong about the taste. As I was busy, he called at a time I said I’d be free, and tried to understand. He had inputs of his own to reason out, like the very different taste of the dish in northern India and other places, and how theirs  was influenced more by a certain part of the country. It was a good dialogue, with me recommending they try out the dish at another old joint which I knew, was good. This felt like a far, far more human and involved business, as opposed to a template perhaps pasted by the Taj folk.
Now imagine, if the Taj people had offered me a 10% discount on my next visit. But the service remained unchanged and the same dessert was still on the menu, and still a dess-aster! Perhaps my reaction would have been milder, as I would have been indebted to the 10% discount. And the restaurant wouldn’t have learnt anything from the feedback.
And these are instances that are still the more evident, at least to most of us. There are so many where one aspect of the business could cause us to completely write off another aspect of it. Or an offer could skew our perception of what we’ve just experienced, be it food, an experience, an electronic product, anything.
A startup might justify the need to influence reviews to obtain a minimum critical mass to even survive. But in doing so, do businesses ignore real feedback and let performance slack? Thanks to early illusionary success, do they risk missing the growth bus?

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Design Thinking: What a Patient Wants

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Design Thinking: What a Patient Wants

Design Thinking is a relatively new concept in many countries including India. It is, however, already some decades old now. And having been practicing it for a few years now, I often get asked what it is about. And for examples of its applications.

For starters, design thinking is a mindset. One that uses empathy and a set of tools to innovate and pursue complex opportunities or solve complex problems. It aims at better understanding the needs of the end-user, or identifying the root cause of a problem, before beginning to innovate. And that always requires empathy, without which, we often settle for one of the first few logical seeming solutions that come to mind.

Like many management and quality initiatives of yester-years, design thinking too is currently receiving its share of a superficial hype. With time however, I believe the hype will pass; leaving people with a better understanding and more sincere appreciation for the power of design thinking.

Ordinarily, in a traditional problem-solving process, more constraints would almost lead to a dead-end or teams giving up. Such complex projects are where design thinking works best.

“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” –Charles Eames

About a year ago, I had undertaken a design thinking exercise for the paediatric oncology department of one of Asia’s leading cancer hospitals. Sharing an overview of the same here, in case some of you are wondering what design thinking is all about. For me, design thinking is simply a humble means to achieve a goal.

Client: Paediatric Oncology Ward of one of Asia’s leading cancer hospitals

Objective: Improving the overall paediatric patient experience

Introduction:

I was at the hospital with two of my associates, to meet the expert medical oncologist regarding a project the associates and I were collaborating on. During interactions, the doctor expressed that patient feedback regarding the treatment has been positive. He and his colleagues, however, were always keen on knowing how they could further improve the patient experience. And given that the hospital offered free/heavily subsidized treatment to the poor, this was a humbling gesture. I offered to work on it.

The task involved interacting with patient families, doctors, administrative and support staff. It was necessary to get a good understanding of each stakeholder group and interactions between groups, in this bustling ecosystem.

Field Work:

Over the next 2 months, I spent several hours a day or entire days, speaking with paediatric patient families. I broad-based the sample to include new admissions, patients currently undergoing treatment, and those there for checkups 1-3 years after successful treatments. The wonderful administrative staff helped identify patients in different segments, as well as introduce me to some of them, to make for a more comfortable interaction.

Doctors had already provided considerable information from their perspective. I then spoke with administrative and support staff across the hospital. From admissions, to inquiry and even 3rd party social service representatives.

Initial Observations & Findings:

Based on information gleaned, and using Design Thinking and other tools*, here were some findings:

  • Patients/ patient families:
    • 90% of patients came from outside the city, 80% from outside the state
    • Nearly all patient families spoke one or more of 6-8 different languages
    • Wait-times to meet a doctor, were significant – between 2 – 6 hours or more
    • A slight delay in patient arrival could mean making another trip the following day
    • At least 2 family members accompanied each patient. It meant putting their normal lives on hold. It meant treatments that lasted between a few months to over a year or more
  • Staff:
    • Was well-intentioned, but mildly stressed and curt in responses to patient families
    • The staff dealt with hundreds of patients and family members on a regular basis
    • Some staff, on average, answered a request for direction to a particular building/room once every 2-4 minutes. Same was the case with some others about when their turn to meet a doctor would come, etc.
    • Some staff members were aware of their curt disposition. However, they admitted that in the region a bulk of the patients came from, they were accustomed to speaking in a curt manner. I too realized the same based on my observations and interactions with some of them. It was an amusing dilemma, the innate intention to be more polite, but an audience that might complicate your work if you yielded. A solution I proposed, aimed at solving that problem from the staff point of view
  • Hospital:
    • The funding enabled treatment to be completely or partially subsidized for the poor
    • Doctors had requested that solutions be cost-effective, if they were to be considered for implementing

Initial Verdict from Patients/ Patient families:

The overall feedback regarding the existing patient experience at the hospital was stellar. This included quality of process, staff, doctors, etc. However, I soon realized that this view was biased. Biased by gratitude for a hospital that covers all or a large part of their medical expenses.

I was back to the beginning. How do you improve patient experience when their treatment is paid for?

Back to trying to identify the opportunity:

I split the problem areas into three:

  • Patient Process:
    • Long wait times for paediatric patients to see a doctor
  • Hospital Process:
    • Duplicate room number problem
    • Multiple inquiries to staff for directions to a room/ward
    • Increased stress levels of staff
  • Customer Experience:
    • How can an already good patient experience be made better?
    • Without burdening the hospital resources?

Again, using Design Thinking tools, I came up with initially unidentified problem areas. I also stumbled upon a promising solution for improving the patient experience.

Cutting to the chase:

My recommendations were as follows:

  • Patient Process:
    • Split patients into morning and afternoon batches to make for easier sequencing and much shorter waits
  • Hospital Process:
    • Unique naming and numbering of rooms/wards (using words that cut across at least the 6-8 languages)
    • Colour coding of important rooms across buildings, with colour-coded stripes on the wall, to help patients ‘follow the coloured line’ (ideally with the colour names being identifiable across languages)
    • Colour coding would significantly bring down the number of times staff got asked for directions. (Patient families would be able to direct others. Colour/line/name-for-room would help overcome language barriers). It would reduce staff stress levels and making them more productive and happy
  • And most importantly, Customer Experience:
    • Proposed Tie-ups with companies (nearby to start with) for low-to-medium skill jobs that were individual-independent. One that anyone could turn up to do it. That would ensure work continuity while not limiting patient treatment schedules
    • Thought behind it: What was clear, was a free/almost-free treatment, and capable and polite doctors and staff. What design thinking helped me identify, is how family members put their lives on hold as their child underwent treatment. Earning some money while they were in the city, would help them buy small joys. It would help reduce the horrors of the disease and side-effects of the treatment on their child. That’s the only thing doctors and staff could not give
    • This would not burden hospital finances
    • I also proposed an alternate strategy option: where patients would pay a very nominal fee for services (from their salaries/stipends). This could bring new-found respect for the institution. The institution could also perhaps extend treatment to a few more patients with the same funds

Please note that coloured stripes and naming of rooms isn’t part of design thinking. What is, is identifying underlying issues such as staff stress and its causative factors. So is identifying possible areas to delight a customer in an otherwise perfect seeming environment.

“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to ‘make the invisible visible.’ –Hillman Curtis

Key learnings from this assignment:

  • Customers might not always articulate what they want
  • Be aware of tendencies where the ecosystem might bias a customer’s viewpoint
  • Often, solving or even addressing one problem area could have benefits across multiple areas

Anyone can learn and practice design thinking. It does, however, need a lot of Empathy and Involvement from you. It also requires an unwavering commitment towards customers, employees  and innovation. And it is especially for those who are comfortable grappling with lots of ambiguity, and can stay true to the larger objective.

Got questions on design thinking, or how it might help your company innovate and grow? Comment below, or get in touch with me via LinkedIn or Twitter (links below).

“Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.” –M.C. Escher

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* tools including (but not limited to) observation, interviewing techniques, design briefs, contra-logic, changing perspectives, forced connections, etc.

And Then It Hits You..

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And Then It Hits You

When interacting (read playing) with infants, objectives are very clear in our head. We must make them laugh, even at the cost of looking foolish. And we must, at all possible cost, avoid them from crying.
Yet somehow, we manage to forget those objectives when dealing with adults.

Strive to delight people. Be it family and friends, your customers, employees, business associates, and definitely even the unsuspecting and often invisible-to-us support staff (janitors, security personnel, peons, etc.).

Delight

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