Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is a common misconception that the real pros – in anything (you know who I mean: the Michael Jordan’s, the Zubin Mehta’s, the Richard Feynman’s, the Steve Jobs,’ etc.) all cruise through life, that they don’t need to work as hard as the rest of us. The fact is just the opposite: these are the hardest working guys in their fields. That’s why they are who they are, that’s why everyone knows them.

Ted Williams, Red Sox slugger and Marine Corps fighter pilot, encapsulated it in this “simple” piece of advice: “Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. And when you think your done, practice some more.”

The point was just made recently by a friend of mine who pointed out that the people who were developing a new car managed to send two vehicles off to test drives with separate magazines, major magazines for this kind of thing. The car being tested was a new, high-end hybrid sports car. The tests were both something far short of stellar, with the car not even able to start in one test, and unable to run on batteries in the other.

The sad part is that I would be willing to bet that back at corporate headquarters (funded in part by a loan from Uncle Sam for more than $500 million) they probably found time to make up some nice excuses both for why the tests didn’t come off as intended, and why it wouldn’t matter that much. Why do I think that is a safe bet? Simply this, organizations that can allow the two failed demos are the same kind of organizations that will search for excuses.

This is not to say that other roll-outs of new and later successful products have always gone well; they haven’t. New product releases often don’t go well. But the simple fact is that in every case, several things are true:

The Product was not properly and fully tested prior to roll-out. If you want something to work, if you want it to be reliable, you had better test it – a lot. A number of years ago I was tangentially involved in a discussion with a US ally who was looking at a particular weapon system and comparing it to a similar system which had – on paper – slightly better performance than the US system. One of the guys who was directly involved in the ‘sales pitch’ made an interesting point: do you want a system that looks good on paper, or one that no-kidding works when you press the button? Because the competition’s system had been test fired 25 times; the US system had been test fired more than 800 times.

Roll-outs are groomed. This is particularly true with cars, but in any product that has fancy expositions, and equally fancy magazines covering them, there is a well-developed methodology for demonstrations. If you aren’t sure what I mean, go to the next military exhibition, where companies show their latest armored vehicles; you will find tanks and IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and self-propelled howitzers – and in each case the paint has been freshly applied, bare metal is polished, tires are cleaned and rubbed with Armor-all. Everything is groomed. And the implications should be clear to all: if you see a weapon on display, and there is something less than perfect (scratches on the nose-cone, screws loose (or over-torqued), etc., then you have to ask yourself what else is wrong in regular production? Where else are they sloppy?

On the other hand, go take a look at companies that know how to do roll-outs. I was at an auto show a few months ago and there were competing demonstrations between Lamborghini and Ferrari. The cars gleamed, the leather smelled heavenly, and when they turned the keys the engines purred and then roared. Anyone who even just sorta, kinda likes cars had a big grin on his face. At that moment every single person in the hall wanted one of those cars.

The makers of the Hybrid allowed two tests rides, in quick succession, go to the dogs. That is the kind of thing that should get someone fired – publicly. After the first test there should have been a very serious re-appraisal of the entire approach to test-rides and roll-outs, and they should have bent over backwards to get that magazine a second test opportunity with a completely groomed, ready to go vehicle. They did not. Instead, they used a vehicle with a drained battery pack for a test ride so that they never even demonstrated the electric propulsion.

There is an old saw that you should never make the same mistake twice. My bet is that they have actually made this mistake more than twice.

While they failed in these very visible test rides, the real failure is not recognizing that every day is a ‘roll-out’ for the customer walking into your business for the first time. Every test ride is important, every customer is your ‘ambassador’ to the market place. And that means preparation. You need to ensure that products are tested – fully tested, that items ‘on the showroom floor’ are cleaned and working and ‘groomed’ and ready to go, and that your people – not just the sales people, but all your people, can speak intelligently about your products, whether you are selling grass seed, hamburgers, jet fighters or MRIs. That means taking the time to prepare. And then taking more time to prepare. That’s what the real pros do: they groom and practice and train. And then they do it again. And again. And Again.


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