By Kevin Meyer
I'm a fairly simple and frugal guy, but there are three, maybe four, luxuries that I do indulge in. When I travel on business I just need a clean bed and I love Marriott's Courtyard chain. When I travel on vacation I want more – and that's why regular readers know I'm a Four Seasons junkie. If they have a hotel anywhere close to where I'm going, I'm there.
That's because the "more" that I want while on vacation is actually less. I don't want to wonder if the hotel will be clean, if the bed will be comfy, if breakfast will be tasty, if the hotel will be in the right part of town, if the internet will be reliable, if I can get something to eat at 3am when recovering from jet lag, and especially if the room will be quiet. Four Seasons does this – everything is perfect, and perfectly consistent, every time. In years I have yet to have a single complaint.
And yes, like with most top tier hotels, I could tell you stories that would amaze you, even if they don't necessarily add any intrinsic value. Such as being met by Four Seasons at the gate (INSIDE security) at the Hong Kong airport, whisked through a special immigration line while your fellow travellers are asking what rock band my wife and I must belong to, and out a side door to their limo so we're at the hotel before most people have cleared customs. Or arriving at their Singapore hotel, checking in in the room (like at most Four Seasons), going straight down to the bar and having the waiter greet you by name – literally 5 minutes after check in. At their Costa Rica resort last April a pool boy greeted me by name and told me how one of the medical products my company makes has helped his daughter. I learned the staff reviews Linked In profiles of guests while on the bus into work. Value? Maybe not. But still pretty cool.
For that perfection I do pay more – sometimes double or even triple. But while on vacation it's worth it to me… to think less. There's compensating value to me. As a bonus I also almost always learn something about service – or even about lean – so I'm tempted to write off part of the bill as a business expense. Note to IRS auditors reading this: I've never actually done this.
Finally to the real story of this post. I'm having a quiet breakfast this morning at the Four Seasons in Bangkok after arriving late the previous evening after a long day of traveling from the US. My table is at the side of the open atrium so I get to watch the staff in action. I've always been amazed by how the staff at their hotels – whether at the restaurants or elsewhere – will be at your side exactly the instant you need them, but are also never annoyingly intrusive. Now I know.
Amidst the flurry of wait staff running around, I noticed that there was always at least one person just standing – and watching. Not always the same person, but there was always one. Just looking around the room at all the customers – and the rest of the staff. If a customer looked up and looked around indicating they needed something, instantly that wait person went over and another person took over the watching and looking. If a line started to form (ie, more than one person) at the front of the restaurant, the person would head over and help with the seating. And someone else would take over the watching.
Someone was always standing, observing, and watching.
So I looked up and to the side, and instantly a waiter was at my side. I asked what he was watching for, and his response? "Just observing, sir." Yes, "just" observing. That "just" has become one key to their exceptional customer service. I wanted to ask if process improvements were identified and acted on, but that's when the language barrier kicked in.
Taiichi Ohno would be proud.
Lean types know of the "Ohno circle" concept. Go to the gemba, and "just" stand and observe. 15, 30, 60 minutes – whatever it takes. In fact, he would tell people that if they haven't observed something that needed to be improved, they should go out and stand longer. How often do you, and your team, take the time to simply observe? How often do you go out to your shop floor and just stand and watch the process?
When you rush around focused on firefighting and fixing things, you miss the nuance of the process. Or, in the case of Four Seasons, a tiny shift of a customer's eyes that indicate they might need something.
Take some time to "just" observe. Better yet, make it part of the ongoing routine of you and your staff.
Jennfier M says
Love it! Did you notice that by taking the time to observe the restaurant you were doing exactly what you suggested other do?
Mike Prueger says
Kevin, you may not know this but Four Seasons spends a lot of time training every team member on HOW to observe. It is a skill that takes training and practice. Good post!
You had another example of a great hotel a couple years ago but I forget what is was about. I would question whether you should assign your liking of Four Seasons to luxury. If it creates offsetting value to the price you pay then I don’t think it is even if it costs more than most people would want to pay. Luxury in my mind is paying for something that may be nice but doesn’t necessarily balance the value equation. I understand though as I like the JW Marriotts.
Mike – I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me. I would be interested in how it is done.
Angela – I believe you are referring to this post on the Sheraton in Shanghai where the general manager works from a desk in the middle of the lobby:
John Stryer says
Angela you bring up an interesting point on value versus luxury. I agree but we also need to recognize that the concept of value and luxury also changes depending on economics. The value of a quiet room may be a few hundred dollars a night if you have already converted other necessities from luxury to just the expected. If you are fairly affluent then a quiet room is worth a certain amount, if you are struggling to pay for a family of five to visit Disneyland to create a different type of value for your kids then the value of a quiet room is different, and if you are struggling to put ramen noodles on the table at night then the value of a quiet room is considerably different.
By having a quiet room Kevin was able to get a good night’s sleep, wake, observe, and write a post to remind us of the importance of observation. We all shared in the value Four Seasons created. Luckily just Kevin paid for it and we got to partake for free!
Or he could have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express…!
Lou English says
Brilliant article! It is the essence of what we are trying to teach clients to do every day, every where. Thank you.
Steve Brenneman says
So simple and yet so profound! Thanks so much Kevin. We will be officially lean when we do this consistently as an organization. We have a long way to go! I watched the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” a few weeks ago and had similar thoughts as i did reading your post. Id like to see what your thoughts are on the parallels to lean. Simple, authentic, fanatical, BEST IN THE WORLD!
Steve H says
I think all those qualities you mention ARE adding value. By definition they transform the product (the hotel stay), and you are willing to pay (extra) for it. Just because someone can’t afford to pay for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. I can’t afford a car with a V-12 engine, but it sure has value in my eyes. Now, some people – and I don’t know any of them – may not value a quiet room or attentive, appropriate, personal service, but you brought affordability into an argument about value, which those are different things. Just because you’re staying at the Courtyard doesn’t mean you don’t still value the Four Seasons. In fact, I’d bet if they were the same price, and same location, you’d always stay at the Four Seasons, even if you just needed “a clean bed”; I think we all would after reading this article.
One other aspect that Kevin didn’t mention is that everyone can handle virtually everything in their general area. This includes seating guests, taking orders, delivering food, and cleaning up. It’s a combination of cross-training and empowerment. I’m guessing the flexibility this investment creates actually saves money, let alone customer pain. I bet there’s also a rigorous interviewing and selection process, and they pay more to attract and retain the cream of the crop. Once again, you get what you pay for.
Steve H #2 says
John just made a great point – everyone has the ability to quickly do the other person job.
I love siting back and watching a process when I’m a customer (:
Christopher Pfeiffer says
I too was taught to go observe. As disciple of Mr. Ohno it is an invaluable tactic to create the culture of Continuous Improvement. This is only done by immediately acting on your observation. As the article depicts; “See a need; Fill a need”. At no time do they assign the task. So as a reminder; if you go observe, be prepared to get your hands dirty and fix what you see personally. The observation is key to find opportunities, but acting on them immediately creates the culture!
Brenda O'Malley says
Christopher’s comment made me think that there are multiple kinds of observation. In the case of wait staff at the Four Seasons, taking immediate action is important. But if I was the general manager of that hotel, I might want to observe the entire process for a longer period of time in order to view the consistency of the process. Obviously I’d step in if a customer experience was in jeopardy, but I’d also be wanting to see the larger context of the process.
Another point is that I’ve found that simple observation is most powerful where processes have not been documented. Manufacturing processes are sometimes very well-defined, but office processes almost never are. Go into the middle of your finance department and stand and observe for an hour. I bet that would be eye-opening.
General P says
I believe what Kevin describes at Four Seasons is actually rather unique, even within the rarified atmosphere of top tier hoteliers. For a long time I was a Ritz Carlton customer but I became increasingly annoyed with the “in your face” over the top service. Maybe it satisfies the egos of some people, but I’m not that needy. I then discovered Four Seasons and have been a customer ever since. Sure they are luxurious, but in a simpler, less opulent way. What sets Four Seasons apart is that as Kevin said everything is perfect – and perfectly consistent. The staff is there the instant you need them – but not in your face when you don’t. That’s what I want. And nothing more.
Jim G says
Kevin, I wonder if your wife gets as bothered by talking lean while on vacation as mine does…
Jim – she’s gotten used to it over these many years. The only time she can’t help but laugh or roll her eyes is when I start sketching flowcharts or spaghetti diagrams on napkins!
Rick Bohan says
And yet, having somebody around who “just observes” is directly counter to journalists’ and academics’ views of lean. (Referring to the item in “A Little of This…)
There should be a class for those guys.
Good blog, keep going on!!!