Reflections on Asia, reflections on business

I am just finishing up a six week visit to Asia that has included the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. I don’t profess to be an expert on the area at all but I have thought about some of my experiences and the first thing that struck me is that Japan is the most efficient of the countries in efficient service delivery and the Philippines is the worst by some measure. No revolutionary thought there. However, if I had to rate the charm factor to the foreigner, I would invert it.

Filiponos are the warmest and outwardly friendliest of the four countries. They use their warmth and charm well to deal with the problems that arise because of their inefficiency. The Japanese solve the issue by Kaizen (continuous improvement) which leads to avoiding a problem in the first place.

I think a lot of larger companies fall into the former category of seeking efficiency and avoiding problems (with wildly differing degrees of success), and a lot of smaller companies try to gloss over their shortcomings with charm and effort in responding to solve a problem. It’s not to say no small companies are efficient, it’s more about trying to maintain ‘the personal touch’ as you scale.

Service delivery is really about the total experience of the service user, efficiency and the human contact. There is often a trade-off between the two but if you can combine the two, you have an exceptional company. Scaling a culture of excellence mixed with genuine human interaction (not just screen reading) is very, very difficult. I well remember dealing with one of the largest parcel carriers in the world in my distribution business. They were fantastically efficient 98% of the time…but to repair that 2%, when they made a mistake,  the ‘system’ and people needed to show some humanity and flexibility. Instead, it delivered you into a Kafkaesque world of automated call options and individuals who were no more than human process manuals.

In my business, we tried to keep the dual ethos of hyper-efficiency and humanity. We were pretty good at doing that according to 3rd party surveys etc. but no doubt it certainly became more and more difficult the bigger we grew. Sustaining the culture that gave you competitive advantage when you are small gets harder as you pursue scale. It’s difficult but not impossible but more of that on a future blog.

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