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Applying Omotenashi (Japanese customer service) to your work

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“There is customer service, and then there is Japanese customer service.” - Tadashi Yanai, CEO, Uniqlo

Americans visiting Japan are often dazzled by the quality of customer service they experience, but usually mistakenly perceive it as a well-executed form of customer service as they understand it from Western culture. The American notion of “the customer is always right,” does not apply in Japan, yet customer dissatisfaction is much less common. We’ll explore why this is, with some entertaining real-life examples, and discover lessons from it that we can apply to our work in the software industry.

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Applying Omotenashi (Japanese customer service) to your work

  1. 1. RailsConf May 2, 2019 Applying Omotenashi (Japanese customer service) to your work Michael Toppa Director of Web Development Hobson & Co hobsonco.com @mtoppa #RailsConf Good morning. My name is Mike Toppa, and I’m the Director of web development for a small firm called Hobson & Co. I’ve been a web developer since the mid 1990s, and I enjoy helping teams explore agile and lean practices, with the goals of improving quality, communication, and developer happiness.
  2. 2. And if you’ve worked with agile or lean practices, you may be familiar with some concepts that come from Japan, like Kanban and Kaizen. Both originate from the world of Japanese manufacturing and have since been applied around the world to software work.
  3. 3. Kaizen 改善 Literally: “change for better” Kaizen is about making constant, small improvements, and empowering individuals to discover and make those improvements.
  4. 4. Kanban 看板 Literally: “signboard” or “billboard” Kanban was originally a system used to monitor assembly lines, and in the world of software it’s grown into a system to help teams prioritize work, manage flow, and uncover obstacles.
  5. 5. Omotenashi お持て成し describes Japanese customer service and hospitality * The term I want to introduce to you today is Omotenashi, which describes Japanese customer service and hospitality. * The application of Kaizen and Kanban to software work is something that has evolved over time. My goal in this presentation is to share some thoughts on how Omotenashi might provide similar value for us. To start exploring how we might adapt concepts from it to our work, and evolve beneficial practices. * Kaizen and Kanban are concepts from management in Japanese manufacturing, and so aren’t really part of every day life for most people in Japan. In contrast, Omotenashi is very much part of every day life in Japan and is a significant aspect of Japanese culture.
  6. 6. * In Christel Takigawa’s presentation to the International Olympic Committee in 2013, she made Omotenashi the key theme of Japan’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics. * She highlighted Japanese hospitality as something that set Japan apart from other contenders. * She began her speech by saying: “We will offer you a unique welcome. In Japanese, I can describe it in one unique word: omotenashi.”
  7. 7. What do I think about, when I think about Japan? * Before I say more about it, I should probably answer the question that might be on your mind: “why is American white guy on stage, talking about Japanese customer service, at a Ruby on Rails conference?” * I’d like to answer that question by way of answering another question, which is “what do I think about, when I think about Japan?”
  8. 8. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  9. 9. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  10. 10. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  11. 11. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  12. 12. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  13. 13. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  14. 14. * First, I think about the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. * My wife Maria is a 2nd generation Japanese-American. She’s an academic, and studies Japanese politics and economics. * She received research grants that brought us to Japan to live for 6 months, in 2007 and again in 2014. * My oldest son went to “yochien” there, which is Japanese kindergarten. * She has relatives there, and we’ve made almost a dozen other trips to Japan over the past 20 years. * I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel extensively within Japan, and I’ve made several good friends in our time there.
  15. 15. * Having said all that, since I’m an American, my knowledge of Japanese culture has inherent limitations, and I have no relevant professional expertise, so I’m not here to “mansplain” it to you. * Instead, I’m here to share what I’ve learned in my time there, from my own experiences, Maria’s, and from talking with friends I’ve made there. Having an outsider’s perspective also has value, as it’s helped me gain a deeper awareness of my own culture, and learn from its differences with Japanese culture.
  16. 16. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  17. 17. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  18. 18. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  19. 19. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  20. 20. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  21. 21. * So, what are some of the other things I think about when I think about Japan…? I think about so many things… * When I first worked on my draft of this talk, I filled it with slides about Japan’s hi-tech modernity, it’s ancient history, it’s cultural heritage, it’s wonderful food, and even it’s amazing manhole covers. * But for the sake of making sure there’s actually some time left for our main topic, I’ll unfortunately have to skip all that…
  22. 22. * …and limit myself to aspects of Japanese culture that relate to Omotenashi * So, with that in mind, something I think about when I think about Japan is orderliness and societal respect. * I took this picture in 2004, back when pay phones were still a thing… This is Maria using a pay phone on a subway platform in Tokyo. Sometimes the most mundane things can tell you a lot about a society. Notice that all the wiring is not secured at all. The power cord is exposed, and plugged into an ordinary wall outlet. The handset chord is that same as what you would see on a home phone. This is because street crime and vandalism are rare in Japan. Compare that to an American pay phone, where the only accessible wire is the handset cord, and it’s wrapped in steel. * Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world. How long do you think a pay phone like this would last on a subway platform in a city like New York or LA? * Also note how spotlessly clean everything is… in case you can’t see the picture well, the subway platform floor is immaculate and the chrome railings and wall tiles are all shiny
  23. 23. * …and limit myself to aspects of Japanese culture that relate to Omotenashi * So, with that in mind, something I think about when I think about Japan is orderliness and societal respect. * I took this picture in 2004, back when pay phones were still a thing… This is Maria using a pay phone on a subway platform in Tokyo. Sometimes the most mundane things can tell you a lot about a society. Notice that all the wiring is not secured at all. The power cord is exposed, and plugged into an ordinary wall outlet. The handset chord is that same as what you would see on a home phone. This is because street crime and vandalism are rare in Japan. Compare that to an American pay phone, where the only accessible wire is the handset cord, and it’s wrapped in steel. * Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world. How long do you think a pay phone like this would last on a subway platform in a city like New York or LA? * Also note how spotlessly clean everything is… in case you can’t see the picture well, the subway platform floor is immaculate and the chrome railings and wall tiles are all shiny
  24. 24. * …and limit myself to aspects of Japanese culture that relate to Omotenashi * So, with that in mind, something I think about when I think about Japan is orderliness and societal respect. * I took this picture in 2004, back when pay phones were still a thing… This is Maria using a pay phone on a subway platform in Tokyo. Sometimes the most mundane things can tell you a lot about a society. Notice that all the wiring is not secured at all. The power cord is exposed, and plugged into an ordinary wall outlet. The handset chord is that same as what you would see on a home phone. This is because street crime and vandalism are rare in Japan. Compare that to an American pay phone, where the only accessible wire is the handset cord, and it’s wrapped in steel. * Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world. How long do you think a pay phone like this would last on a subway platform in a city like New York or LA? * Also note how spotlessly clean everything is… in case you can’t see the picture well, the subway platform floor is immaculate and the chrome railings and wall tiles are all shiny
  25. 25. * Which brings me to the next thing I think about when I think about Japan: cleanliness * I’ll note for anyone who can’t see it, I’m showing a picture of a sign in a bathroom in Japan that says “please urinate with precision and elegance” * Things you may think of as inherently dirty, like public restrooms or garbage trucks, are just about always really, really clean
  26. 26. * Which brings me to the next thing I think about when I think about Japan: cleanliness * I’ll note for anyone who can’t see it, I’m showing a picture of a sign in a bathroom in Japan that says “please urinate with precision and elegance” * Things you may think of as inherently dirty, like public restrooms or garbage trucks, are just about always really, really clean
  27. 27. * Which brings me to the next thing I think about when I think about Japan: cleanliness * I’ll note for anyone who can’t see it, I’m showing a picture of a sign in a bathroom in Japan that says “please urinate with precision and elegance” * Things you may think of as inherently dirty, like public restrooms or garbage trucks, are just about always really, really clean
  28. 28. “I just wanted to hug everyone” a friend visiting Japan for the first time * I think about politeness, personal respect and friendliness. Everywhere I have traveled in Japan, I have always been made to feel welcome. This quote is from a friend of ours after she visited Japan for the first time, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling. * The Japanese are known for being polite, but they’re not generally known for being friendly, but they actually are, especially if you venture outside of Tokyo. If you make an effort to engage socially, you may be surprised at the warmth of the interactions you’ll have.
  29. 29. Video Article * I think about professionalism and decency. One of the things that struck me the most in Japan is that almost any full time job will pay a living wage, people are treated with respect regardless of their job, and you can pretty much always expect professional, quality service. * As an example, the Shinkansen bullet trains average 12 minutes between arriving at their last stop and then departing again. 5 of those minutes are for passengers to get on and off, which leaves 7 minutes for cleaning the train. * Typically there is 1 person cleaning each train car. Those cars each have 100 seats. So they have 7 minutes to pick up trash on the seats, clean the floor, wipe down the trays at every seat, check for any lost items, and since the seats rotate, they also make sure to rotate them all to face the same direction. * Doing a job like that well in such a short time requires having a standardized set of tasks that maximize efficiency, and it requires executing those tasks with excellence day in and day out. * Here I am on stage at a software conference, excited to tell you about how they clean trains in Japan. It’s an ordinary job, but when done so well, it rises to the level of an art form - one that Harvard business students want to study.
  30. 30. Omotenashi: Japanese customer service & hospitality * And this brings us to the idea of Omotenashi - Japanese customer service and hospitality. * A key motivator for why things like cleaning trains are taken so seriously in Japan is hospitality. In the US we think of hospitality as something we experience when visiting someone’s home, or maybe a hotel, but in Japan it’s also a key aspect of most businesses. When you do something like get on a train, it’s very much considered similar to visiting someone’s home, in terms of how you should be made to feel welcome. * Bridget Brennan, a columnist for Forbes magazine, put it well in describing her customer service experiences in Japan: “Wherever I ventured, in stores large and small, I experienced what would be considered white-glove service back home, delivered with the kind of warmth, enthusiasm and salesmanship typically found in black-and-white movies.”
  31. 31. Omotenashi お持て成し Literally: “without one’s public face” (meaning: whole-hearted, sincere) * Omotenashi is the combination of two words in Japanese. “Omote” refers to the “public face” we show to the world, and “nashi” means “without.” Omotenashi means your actions are whole-hearted, sincere, and without artifice. * Whether people genuinely feel that way, while say, working as a cashier at a 7-11, day in and day out, is another question. But the main point is that customers experience the service you provide as if it were always true.
  32. 32. “There is customer service, and then there is Japanese customer service” Tadashi Yanai, CEO, Uniqlo source * Uniqlo is a clothing store chain that started in Japan and is now global. To give you a sense of the quality of their service, Uniqlo’s CEO, Tadashi Yanai, said this when they opened their first store in Australia. * They spent a full year training the Australian staff, to get them to a Japanese level of quality service. * Imagine going through 12 months of training before taking a job at a place like The Gap. * Now If you’ve been to one of the Uniqlo stores that have opened in the US over the past few years, your customer service experience may not have stood out as anything special. The quote in my slide here is from 2014. This is just a guess on my part, but I think Uniqlo must have found it cost prohibitive to do this level of training as they’ve rapidly expanded globally in recent years.
  33. 33. * To give you a personal example, when I was living in Tokyo with my family in 2007, I was responsible for the boys during the day, while my wife was working. After dropping off my oldest son at kindergarten, I would usually find a place to explore in Tokyo with my 1 1/2 year old son. I found out about a department store that had a children’s play area on its top floor, so we headed there one day. We were the first to arrive when they opened the doors in the morning, and there were no other customers. In an American dept store, you might see the staff milling around and still getting ready for the day. But in Japan, they are there and they are ready to serve you. Dept stores in Japan also have more staff than American stores, as you would never want to risk keeping a customer waiting. I had to head across the main floor to the elevator on the other side, and as I walked with my son in the stroller, lined up in front of me and on each side, every 15 feet or so, was a staff person, and they would bow deeply as I passed by. I’d experienced this before with individual staff people, but never so many like this, and it made me feel like royalty. It also made made feel a little bit bad, because I wasn’t going to by anything - we just wanted to go play with legos and ultra man action figures in the play area. * Similarly, if you visit a boutique retail store, like a nice clothing shop, and make a purchase, when you leave, the person who helped you will follow you out the door, and bow deeply – staying bowed until you've reached the end of the block.
  34. 34. In Japan, the customer is king …? Westerners typically perceive this as a selfless devotion to the customer: you get the impression that Japanese workers will do anything to please you, since you are made to feel so well taken care of. That’s certainly how I perceived it at first.
  35. 35. The customer is king * But this perception is the result of our own Western cultural assumptions, where we presume a hierarchical relationship - that it’s the service provider’s job to do what the customer wants. That’s not how customer service works in Japan. * As a customer you are expected to respect the professional judgement of your service provider, and respect their expertise. * If you are a customer service provider in Japan, and you have a customer asking you for something that isn’t supposed to be part of their experience, that means things are starting to go wrong…
  36. 36. In Japan, the customer is considered incompetent, but is made to feel like a king …it means the customer has overstepped the bounds of their role. It’s your job as a service provider to steer them back onto the correct path. Not surprisingly, this happens most frequently with foreigners visiting Japan, who naturally don’t know anything about Omotenashi. Situations like this put a Japanese customer service provider in an awkward position, and they need to get things back on track as gently as possible, but also firmly.
  37. 37. Video source * To illustrate this, I’m going to show you a 2 minute clip of a TED talk from Dr. Sheena Iyengar. She’s a professor at the Columbia Business School and is an expert on choice - why people want choice, how they choose, and so forth. At first I wanted to paraphrase what she says here, but realized I couldn’t do it justice. So here she is describing one of her first experiences when visiting Japan for the first time. * She says at the end they want to help her save face. This is a common reason why you may not get what you want in certain situations. She didn’t realize that, from a Japanese perspective, she’s unwittingly embarrassing herself by asking for sugar with her tea, so they are trying to protect her from herself.
  38. 38. Video source * To illustrate this, I’m going to show you a 2 minute clip of a TED talk from Dr. Sheena Iyengar. She’s a professor at the Columbia Business School and is an expert on choice - why people want choice, how they choose, and so forth. At first I wanted to paraphrase what she says here, but realized I couldn’t do it justice. So here she is describing one of her first experiences when visiting Japan for the first time. * She says at the end they want to help her save face. This is a common reason why you may not get what you want in certain situations. She didn’t realize that, from a Japanese perspective, she’s unwittingly embarrassing herself by asking for sugar with her tea, so they are trying to protect her from herself.
  39. 39. * There can be other reasons for these kinds of situations as well, which we can explore with a couple more stories. Here’s one from my own experience, where Japanese customer service professionalism collides with American notions of choice. * In 2014, we lived in a city in southern Japan called Fukuoka for 6 months, and near our apartment was a pastry shop called Anderson’s. It was a favorite stop, especially for my boys, as you can see here in the picture. You would get a tray and pick your own pastries, and then go to the cashier to pay. The cashier would also individually bag each of your pastries…
  40. 40. * I’m very eco-conscious and this would bother me - it felt very wasteful to me, to use so many bags. So one time, using my limited Japanese skills, I mustered the courage to politely ask the cashier to use just one bag. Her response was to simply ignore me. I felt confident she understood me, as I’ve had many other kinds of simple customer service verbal exchanges without any trouble. My Japanese wasn’t good enough for me to feel comfortable pressing the matter further, but on future visits I tried a few more times, and they would always just ignore me. * Why were they doing this? It’s because they know what might happen if they actually did what I asked. I would go home, and take my sugar donut out of the bag, and give my wife her egg bread, and it would have sugar all over it from the donut. And she would think “boy, what a lousy job those people at Anderson’s did.” * So, in this situation they are not just trying to protect my from myself, they are trying to protect others from me as well, and by extension, maintain their reputation.
  41. 41. * Here’s a third and final example of a customer service situation going a bit off the rails. This is a story my wife Maria told me. She was in a small tableware shop in Tokyo, and was admiring a hand-made tea caddy, which is for storing tea leaves. Unlike me, her Japanese is excellent, and is actually good enough that native speakers often don’t notice her American accent at first. She was chatting amiably with the store owner, and said that she would like to show the tea caddy to her friends, back home in America. At this point his demeanor completely changed - he stiffened up and said, “oh, you’re from America… you’re not going to put paper clips in it, are you?” * This isn’t just about protecting her from herself, or protecting others from her, it’s about protecting the product from her. He would prefer to not make the sale rather than see it used incorrectly. This may seem a little extreme - what is going on here? Before I answer that question, I have to provide some context for the next short video I’m about to show you…
  42. 42. …Maria has recently gotten into a very ridiculous, very fun, and very self-aware Japanese heavy metal band called Maximum the Hormone. When you watch videos on Youtube, they automatically recommend other videos that their algorithms think you might like. and so she came across a video by Marty Friedman. So who is Marty Friedman? He’s the former lead guitarist for the American heavy metal band Megadeath, and it turns out he has lived in Japan for the last 16 years, and has his own TV show there.
  43. 43. Video source * So, I give you Marty Friedman, providing some advice for first-time visitors to Japan, in an interview he did with the online magazine Metal Injection. And it turns out it’s perfect for what I wanted to say about this experience Maria had while shopping for a tea caddy. * Tying this back to Dr. Iyengar’s tea and sugar story, my pastry bags story, and Maria’s tea caddy story, you can start to see the common threads. There’s a very strong focus on providing service according to strict standards of excellence. * The salesman Maria was dealing with definitely went a bit too far with his comment, but it’s an expression of his worry about a customer not having the right experience with the product.
  44. 44. Video source * So, I give you Marty Friedman, providing some advice for first-time visitors to Japan, in an interview he did with the online magazine Metal Injection. And it turns out it’s perfect for what I wanted to say about this experience Maria had while shopping for a tea caddy. * Tying this back to Dr. Iyengar’s tea and sugar story, my pastry bags story, and Maria’s tea caddy story, you can start to see the common threads. There’s a very strong focus on providing service according to strict standards of excellence. * The salesman Maria was dealing with definitely went a bit too far with his comment, but it’s an expression of his worry about a customer not having the right experience with the product.
  45. 45. Three lessons * There’s a reason I’m focusing on these stories about customer’s desires coming into conflict with the professional standards of Japanese customer service providers, because that’s where I think the most interesting lessons are for us. * There are 3 lessons I’ve thought of
  46. 46. Lesson #1: for developers The first lesson is about how we as developers do our work, and how we work together as teams
  47. 47. Like Japanese customer service, software development has standards and practices * Omotenashi entails a rigorous approach to achieving consistent excellence, for everything from cleaning trains to hosting the Olympics. * And with developing software, we have standards and practices that allow us to achieve excellence as well.
  48. 48. And you have them …right? In most of the places I’ve worked over the years, when I started on the job, my team didn’t have things like a definition of done, or mutually agreed upon ways to do things like testing or pair programming. Or if we did have them, they weren’t followed with any real consistency.
  49. 49. * I just mentioned a definition of done. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s essentially a checklist of tasks you should complete before saying that your work on a feature is done. This checklist is something your team works together to create, and it should evolve over time as your team’s practices grow and evolve. It’s purpose is to help provide your team with a shared understanding of what it means to do quality work * When you don’t have a mutually agreed upon way of working in your team, disagreements typically end up being resolved by someone asserting authority, or by whoever decided to push their position more aggressively, or a situation may end up unresolved, lingering to plague the team again the next time it comes up.
  50. 50. Adopting and maintaining standards of excellence is hard Over the years I’ve worked at major universities, medium-sized tech firms, small venture funded start-ups, consulting shops, and non-profits, and at all of these places I’ve experienced team environments like this, where there were always some areas of significant dysfunction. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I’ve heard many stories like this from friends over the years as well, so my impression is that these situations are more common than we might think.
  51. 51. Just like every family, every organization is dysfunctional * This has lead me to believe that just like every family, every organization is dysfunctional. It’s simply a question of in what way, and to what degree. * And just like with families, what you experience on a daily basis naturally comes to define your perception of what’s normal, making it easy to become blind to the dysfunction. * And the costs over time of that blindness can be high, in terms of its effect on quality, efficiency, and team morale * This happens because people are unwilling to have hard conversations, or they don’t know how to have them, or don’t have the organizational support to have them.
  52. 52. * In addition to that challenge, there’s a whole other challenge - as an industry we are still figuring out the best ways to do things, so even when you can bring your team together, it’s not always obvious what the right way forward is. On any given day you can go online and find people arguing about whether Scrum is great or should go die in a fire, or whether application monoliths are bad design and we should all switch to microservices, or whether test driven development is dead. * The world of software development is like this because our industry is fairly young compared to others. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it makes it hard to figure out how to proceed, when you’re hearing really smart and experienced people tell you really different things about how to do your work. * But it’s also a blessing, because it means we have an opportunity to participate in the conversation about where we’re all headed, to learn different ways of working, and decide for ourselves what works best for us.
  53. 53. * In addition to that challenge, there’s a whole other challenge - as an industry we are still figuring out the best ways to do things, so even when you can bring your team together, it’s not always obvious what the right way forward is. On any given day you can go online and find people arguing about whether Scrum is great or should go die in a fire, or whether application monoliths are bad design and we should all switch to microservices, or whether test driven development is dead. * The world of software development is like this because our industry is fairly young compared to others. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it makes it hard to figure out how to proceed, when you’re hearing really smart and experienced people tell you really different things about how to do your work. * But it’s also a blessing, because it means we have an opportunity to participate in the conversation about where we’re all headed, to learn different ways of working, and decide for ourselves what works best for us.
  54. 54. * In addition to that challenge, there’s a whole other challenge - as an industry we are still figuring out the best ways to do things, so even when you can bring your team together, it’s not always obvious what the right way forward is. On any given day you can go online and find people arguing about whether Scrum is great or should go die in a fire, or whether application monoliths are bad design and we should all switch to microservices, or whether test driven development is dead. * The world of software development is like this because our industry is fairly young compared to others. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it makes it hard to figure out how to proceed, when you’re hearing really smart and experienced people tell you really different things about how to do your work. * But it’s also a blessing, because it means we have an opportunity to participate in the conversation about where we’re all headed, to learn different ways of working, and decide for ourselves what works best for us.
  55. 55. * In addition to that challenge, there’s a whole other challenge - as an industry we are still figuring out the best ways to do things, so even when you can bring your team together, it’s not always obvious what the right way forward is. On any given day you can go online and find people arguing about whether Scrum is great or should go die in a fire, or whether application monoliths are bad design and we should all switch to microservices, or whether test driven development is dead. * The world of software development is like this because our industry is fairly young compared to others. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it makes it hard to figure out how to proceed, when you’re hearing really smart and experienced people tell you really different things about how to do your work. * But it’s also a blessing, because it means we have an opportunity to participate in the conversation about where we’re all headed, to learn different ways of working, and decide for ourselves what works best for us.
  56. 56. Adopting and maintaining standards of excellence is hard …but worth it * So I encourage you to have conversations with your team that might be hard - to work towards being on the same page, for things like testing strategies, having a definition of done, code reviews, pair programming, and so forth. * Having those conversation first requires having an environment of trust and mutual respect. Sometimes you have to build up that trust first. But when you do, I have found that having a mutually agreed upon way of working is really empowering, and promotes team harmony, quality, and job satisfaction.
  57. 57. Lesson #2: working with clients * Everything I just said is about teams. The challenges are even greater when dealing with clients, whether it’s an internal client in your organization or you’re a consultant working with external clients. The Japanese customer service stories I’ve shared have all been one-time retail or food service interactions. In our world, we have ongoing relationships. This is huge difference - doing things like ignoring a customer’s request as a way to solve a problem, like the cashier at the Anderson’s pastry shop, is not an option. * And all the mistakes you can make working with clients, over the years I’ve made them. The most common mistake is over-promising and under-delivering. Unless you’re lucky enough to have especially enlightened management, you will always face pressure to do more in less time. And I’ve done things like meekly saying yes to impossible deadlines, and then I exhaust myself, and cut corners to try to make it happen. * And the end result is almost always damage - damage to the code quality, stress and damage to your health, and damage to the client relationship, where even after all that, they still end up with some combination of missed deadlines and buggy code.
  58. 58. * To give you a sense of what I mean, this is a chart I made after I started as the Director of the web team at the U Penn SOM. It’s an effort allocation chart, showing the number of people we would need to do the work expected of us for the upcoming 6 months, compared to how many we actually had. The blue bars represent the staff we had, which were assigned to meet the needs of specific departments in small teams of mostly 1 or 2, which meant the team sizes were too small, but that was separate issue. And the red bars represent the number of people we would need to do the work that was actually expected of us. * Until I got everyone together to make the estimates that inform this chart, we didn’t really see the big picture of the situation we were in. The team had never done estimating like this before * We used what’s known as the SWAG estimating technique
  59. 59. S W A G * If you’re not familiar with the term… * It’s by no means perfect, but can provide a general sense of scope and scale
  60. 60. S W A G ophisticated * If you’re not familiar with the term… * It’s by no means perfect, but can provide a general sense of scope and scale
  61. 61. S W A G ophisticated ild * If you’re not familiar with the term… * It’s by no means perfect, but can provide a general sense of scope and scale
  62. 62. S W A G ophisticated ild ss * If you’re not familiar with the term… * It’s by no means perfect, but can provide a general sense of scope and scale
  63. 63. S W A G ophisticated ild ss uess * If you’re not familiar with the term… * It’s by no means perfect, but can provide a general sense of scope and scale
  64. 64. * Almost all the demand in the tallest red bar was coming from one department, that had a history of always getting what they wanted. If we ever pushed back, they would escalate their demands politically through the school’s administration to apply pressure * Prior to this, we had no means to really respond to this pressure, other than to just give in * And these demands for projects also came with deadline pressure, which meant we would rush, and not always do our best work, leading to more suffering for us in the long-run, with bugs, unhappy clients, and poor experiences for users.
  65. 65. * This marked the start of a challenging but very worthwhile Agile transition for the team. We discussed and implemented good engineering standards and practices, and stuck with them, and over time this allowed us to deliver more maintainable and less buggy code, giving our users better experiences. * We also adopted Agile workflow and project management practices that allowed us to articulate and visualize the bigger picture of what was going on with our projects. Together these changes gave us the ability to do something analogous to what Japanese service providers do when faced with difficult situations. * We were both protecting the client from themselves, and protecting the product from the client. Importantly, these changes also helped us develop the ability to have productive conversations with the client, about how we had been working together over the years, and how to find a better a way forward. * And we learned how to protect other clients from this client: by developing skills for estimating, and making data and charts available about our work to all departments, we were able to provide transparency on where our time and effort was going, which enabled other departments to participate on a more equal footing in the higher level political conversations that would determine our team’s overall effort allocation.
  66. 66. Protecting the client from themselves * This marked the start of a challenging but very worthwhile Agile transition for the team. We discussed and implemented good engineering standards and practices, and stuck with them, and over time this allowed us to deliver more maintainable and less buggy code, giving our users better experiences. * We also adopted Agile workflow and project management practices that allowed us to articulate and visualize the bigger picture of what was going on with our projects. Together these changes gave us the ability to do something analogous to what Japanese service providers do when faced with difficult situations. * We were both protecting the client from themselves, and protecting the product from the client. Importantly, these changes also helped us develop the ability to have productive conversations with the client, about how we had been working together over the years, and how to find a better a way forward. * And we learned how to protect other clients from this client: by developing skills for estimating, and making data and charts available about our work to all departments, we were able to provide transparency on where our time and effort was going, which enabled other departments to participate on a more equal footing in the higher level political conversations that would determine our team’s overall effort allocation.
  67. 67. Protecting the client from themselves Protecting the product from the client * This marked the start of a challenging but very worthwhile Agile transition for the team. We discussed and implemented good engineering standards and practices, and stuck with them, and over time this allowed us to deliver more maintainable and less buggy code, giving our users better experiences. * We also adopted Agile workflow and project management practices that allowed us to articulate and visualize the bigger picture of what was going on with our projects. Together these changes gave us the ability to do something analogous to what Japanese service providers do when faced with difficult situations. * We were both protecting the client from themselves, and protecting the product from the client. Importantly, these changes also helped us develop the ability to have productive conversations with the client, about how we had been working together over the years, and how to find a better a way forward. * And we learned how to protect other clients from this client: by developing skills for estimating, and making data and charts available about our work to all departments, we were able to provide transparency on where our time and effort was going, which enabled other departments to participate on a more equal footing in the higher level political conversations that would determine our team’s overall effort allocation.
  68. 68. Protecting the client from themselves Protecting the product from the client Protecting other clients from this client * This marked the start of a challenging but very worthwhile Agile transition for the team. We discussed and implemented good engineering standards and practices, and stuck with them, and over time this allowed us to deliver more maintainable and less buggy code, giving our users better experiences. * We also adopted Agile workflow and project management practices that allowed us to articulate and visualize the bigger picture of what was going on with our projects. Together these changes gave us the ability to do something analogous to what Japanese service providers do when faced with difficult situations. * We were both protecting the client from themselves, and protecting the product from the client. Importantly, these changes also helped us develop the ability to have productive conversations with the client, about how we had been working together over the years, and how to find a better a way forward. * And we learned how to protect other clients from this client: by developing skills for estimating, and making data and charts available about our work to all departments, we were able to provide transparency on where our time and effort was going, which enabled other departments to participate on a more equal footing in the higher level political conversations that would determine our team’s overall effort allocation.
  69. 69. Lesson #3: creative problem solving * Having standards and practices is good, but a huge part of what we do is creative problem solving. * Every project we work on is a unique creation, not quite the same as any other. On a regular basis we are called upon to be insightful and ingenuitive to solve new problems. * This is very different from the Japanese customer service stories I’ve been telling you, which are all about consistent adherence to standards and providing service in the same way each time.
  70. 70. “In Japan, I consistently get very good service. In the US, I’ve had the worst service, but I’ve also had the best.” An American friend who lived in Japan for many years * An American friend of mine who lived in Japan for many years said this. What is he getting at? * At this point we know about the high quality of Japanese service, and if you’re from the US or have spent any time here, you know about the terrible service that can happen. * But the best service he’s talking about is when you’re provided with creative problem solving. * When Marty Friedman was saying to not try to customize your order at a restaurant in Japan, that’s not a big deal if we’re just in the realm of preferences, but what if you have a food allergy?
  71. 71. * When we were living in Japan in 2014, we became friends with my Japanese tutor, and her daughter had a food allergy. She told me that going out to eat in Japan was often a frustrating experience for them. While staff were always very willing to provide information about items on the menu to avoid, trying to customize an order was often difficult. * When they visited the US, and went to good restaurants with good staff, she was thrilled at the service they received. Waiters would usually say something like, “no problem, I’ll talk to the chef, and we’ll see what we can do - we’ll come up with something that’s just for you.” * There are parallels here for the kind of work we do with software - creative problem solving is essential to the work we do, and we need to incorporate it into our standards of what it means to do quality work
  72. 72. “But we’ve always done it this way” * To give you an example, creative problem solving can sometimes even call for pushing back on a client’s request, and educating them on possibilities they hadn’t thought of * When I was working at a consulting shop, we had a client whose business was to make buildings more energy efficient. They would retrofit buildings with new windows, doors, insulation, and so forth. They wanted us to build an online calculator for them, for prospective customers to provide information about their buildings and then receive cost saving estimates. They already knew how they wanted us to do the calculations, and as we became familiar with everything, we had an idea for what we thought might be a better way to do it. We asked if they had actual cost saving data from previous customers, and they said yes. So we said “great, if you’re willing to share that data with us, we can do some statistical analysis, and use that to have the calculator provide more accurate estimates.” They seemed intrigued, but also apprehensive. They said “well, we’ve always done it this way,” and they hadn’t worked with us before, so they weren’t sure how much to trust us, and they said no. At that point we could have just said fine, and gone with their approach. But instead we came back and offered to run an initial analysis, and share the results with them, and show how it compared to their old way. We said that if at that point they still wanted to do it their old way, they wouldn’t have to pay for the time we spent on the analysis. So they said yes, and once they saw what we did and we stepped them through it, they really liked it, and adopted our approach.
  73. 73. The wisdom to know the difference * There’s a whole other talk I could give on interviewing clients and eliciting business requirements, but my point with this example is to illustrate the value of asking questions and creative problem solving. * A key question is: when does a situation call for adherence to professional standards in order to avoid giving in to unrealistic demands, and when does it call for client education and creative problem solving? * I believe the answer is that many situations call for both. You want to adhere to engineering standards to maintain quality and morale, and you want to offer alternative, creative solutions to problems when necessary. * This is the key point of my talk. There’s a lot we can learn from Omotenashi, for ways to think about having high standards and achieving consistent professional excellence, but given that the nature of our work is about creative problem solving, we also need to always be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. * For example, If a deadline must be met, and we don’t have enough time to do the work well, can we defer certain features until later? Or can we start with simplified versions of certain features? Or are there other creative ideas we can explore that don’t require compromising quality or putting the team on a death march? These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking.
  74. 74. Omotenashi お持て成し * But how exactly do we go about having these kinds of conversations with clients - conversations that can often be difficult? * In the world of Japanese customer service, customers are expected to respect the professional judgement of their service provider. * In the world of software development, we’re educated on programming languages, frameworks, tools, and workflows, but we’re not taught how to behave. We’re not taught how to clearly articulate and diplomatically present and defend our professional judgement. * A key part of the education of doctors and lawyers is how to behave with their clients and co-workers. Doctors know how to handle themselves in the pressures of an emergency room, or how to persuade a patient to make healthy choices. By cultivating a perception of knowledge and expertise for their professions, doctors and lawyers are typically treated with great respect, even when they have things to say that their clients don’t want to hear. * I’m not suggesting we all have to go to school for a million years like doctors and lawyers do, and spend a million dollars in the process * But what I am suggesting is that if you want to be seen as a professional, and treated like one, that means pursuing technical excellence, providing creative problem solving, standing up for the quality of your work, and always being courteous and diplomatic.
  75. 75. Owari 終わり Literally: “the end”
  76. 76. http://bit.ly/railsconf-japanese-customer-service @mtoppa Video source A moment of zen, and an example of creative problem solving and teamwork
  77. 77. http://bit.ly/railsconf-japanese-customer-service @mtoppa Video source A moment of zen, and an example of creative problem solving and teamwork

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