How to reset a broken culture?

I’d recently read “Rework“, the book that 37signals’ founders wrote about what they learned along the way while growing their business, and why they think the mould about setting up a small business (or growing into a larger business) shouldn’t just be broken, but thrown away too.

It made me think about the things I’ve done right – being myself, being open and honest, feeling my customers’ pain, and the things I’ve done wrong – being overkeen to delegate, defer, insist, be grouchy, and allow myself be pushed into creating policy to deal with a corner case instead of dealing with it properly, falling into the various terrible management traps that lie in wait, trying to catch you out when you least expect it.

One recurring theme throughout the book, though in many different shapes and sizes, is the simple and old-fashioned adage of “treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself”, and that’s something I really identified with. It’s something we should live our life by more often.

Continue reading “How to reset a broken culture?”

Detrain or not detrain? That is the question…

Those of you who live in London and the South East likely saw the chaos that was caused by a bungled cable theft to South West Trains commuter services yesterday.

After over three hours stuck going nowhere, and with little or no information about how longer they would be involuntarily detained on the train, a number of passengers on a train within walking distance of a station decided to self evacuate, seeing as the railway appeared, at least from their point of view, to be making no attempt to help them.

Evacuating a train to track level is not a decision which is taken lightly. It’s no easy task, regardless of whether passengers are able to sit at step level and drop down, or come down an evacuation ladder. It’s still a long way down for most folk, a slow process, and once you’re on the floor, there’s lots to trip over and fall on. Oh, and in this case, add in a high voltage electric rail, just to build the excitement.

Like the initial attempted cable robbery, the response from the railway operator seemed to be bungled too. From detaining people for excessively long periods, to the local Plods threatening to arrest and prosecute those who self-evacuated for trespass, adding to their distress, the whole thing seemed to be a mess of confusion and frustration.

(SWT have since decided that although the original cause for the problem was vandalism, they do want to compensate delayed passengers.)

The basic fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a best practice for rail staff which says, “Okay, you’ve been trying for too long, you should give up trying to move this train (or trains), and now make it safe to detrain these people to track level and walk them in.”

Right now, local staff (the driver, the station staff) can’t make that decision, unless it’s more dangerous to be on the train (i.e. it’s well alight). They need the decision to come from on high.

The decision is fractured – between the train operator, Network Rail, and the BTP. In itself it’s a problem, you’ve got to stop all other trains in the area of the train you’re evacuating (though this seemed to have largely been done for them on this occasion!). It’s also a last resort. It’s admitting defeat.

People faced with a failure situation will always want to “try one last thing”, usually several times, before saying “Okay, there’s no more we can do” and stopping. It’s human nature. Who we are and what we do. The best thing to do is give these folk some guidelines, to help them make the decision to throw the towel in, and to show them that it’s not wrong when they finally do.

There needs to be some best practice for dealing with stranded passenger trains. There needs to be some timelimit recommended, which is longer than an hour, and less than three, upon which the white flag is raised and passengers are evacuated.

Then the folk in charge can actually make a decision, with the confidence they aren’t getting fired tomorrow.

Paging Air New Zealand, please report to the naughty corner.

A lot of folks who know me will know that I’ve held Air New Zealand in high regard for several years, that I really rated their inflight product and service, and would choose to fly Air NZ from Heathrow over to LA over other airlines such as BA or Virgin, as well as use them for flying to NZ itself.

I was particularly a big fan of their Pacific Premium Economy product – loads of leg room, and an inflight service which was deserving of the title “Premium” – offering Business class meals and fine NZ wines. I thought it represented very good value for money, and made the Virgin Premium Economy product, and especially the BA World Traveller Plus product look positively economy by comparison.

On a recent trip down to New Zealand (my third in as many years) in January, for the NZNOG meeting in Wellington, I was able to experience Air New Zealand’s new long-haul Premium Economy product on their much hyped new Boeing 777-300 aircraft on one of it’s first long haul flights.

Sadly, while the product was innovative, I was not impressed. I felt underwhelmed and disappointed with the experience, compared to that I would have received on the older plane. What’s worse is that it wasn’t all teething troubles. Sure, there were some teething troubles. But many were what I see as basic issues with the new product.

I found the new “SpaceSeat” anything but spacious – it felt confining, with the TV screen mere inches from your face, and at a weird angle compared to the seatback (and therefore your body), so you have to turn your neck or sit sort of twisted into a side-saddle position to try and be comfortable and watch a film at the same time.

The “seat pocket” as provided was a joke – it was made of a solid material (rather than an elasticated netting), and wasn’t even big enough to fit a book in.

The area of the aircraft I was sat in felt incredibly hot, stuffy and uncomfortable. Despite the crew setting a cooler temperature, where I was sat, it never seemed to cool down or get any sort of noticeable airflow.

I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but I can only describe what I felt as being “freaked out” by the environment created by the cabin – from the stuffy air to the TV in your face, to the lack of space – and this was in a window seat!

I thought the personal space on the new product rather inferior to that you get on Air NZ’s 747-400 planes.

The fact is, Air NZ have, for some reason, crammed the rows of seats very tightly. I would probably be inclined to pay a little more if a row or so of seats was pulled out and spread between the other seats. Just to get that TV a bit further away from my face.

The inflight service was of a reduced quality compared to the old service, at least as far as I was concerned. It was very slow, due to the fiddly nature of the service, and because of the seat being angled away from the aisle, so tight up to the back of the seat in front, it wasn’t really possible to have any sort of interaction with the crew member serving you from the aisle, as this would involve being able to turn your head through much greater than 90 degrees.

This meant that it was much more difficult to experience the “soft side” of the service of the great Air NZ crews, as you couldn’t easily make eye-contact with them. They just became this sort of disembodied arm and hand pushing food and drinks in front of you. It also took over two (and more like three) hours to serve the main meal.

This seems to fly in the face of what Air NZ were aiming for, which was a more personal service!

It’s fair to say that on the older aircraft, Air NZ didn’t have the best PE seat in the sky, but I think they had the best Premium Economy soft product, in terms of the food and level of service. Air NZ seem to have gutted that great soft product, in order to provide what they percieve as a “better seat”.

There are other comedy errors, such as the location of the Premium Economy galley (over the wing) meant that it couldn’t have a hot water tap. If passengers ordered coffee or tea, it had to be brought from the other galleys – meaning staff walking through the cabin with jugs/flasks of hot water from the other galleys – not made easy because the aisles have been made narrower!

The changes don’t just affect the Premium Economy product, either. The quid-pro-quo of the “Economy Skycouch” product is that the Economy cabin is seated 10-across, which doesn’t sound bad, until you realise this is on a Boeing 777, which most other airlines, including Air NZ themselves on their 777-200s, only seat 9-across.

The aisles are noticeably narrower – more folk in the aisles will notice they get bumped – as are the seats themselves. A friend travelled in the back on the 777-300 and found it unbearably uncomfortable, having to sit with their shoulders “tucked in”. I can understand this on a 20-minute commute to Central London, but not on a 13 hour flight from LA to NZ.

The seat pitch (the space between the seats) in Economy has also been cranked down from 34″ on the 747-400 to 31-32″ on the 777-300. Air NZ have gone from one of the best Economy products in the sky to one of the most unbearably cramped in one fell swoop. Feels like a step backwards, and it’s not just me. There’s plenty of discussion about it on that perennial thorn-in-the-side of airlines, Flyertalk.

When the product was launched, it was accompanied by a lot of fanfare about the months of painstaking research that has gone on behind the scenes. If there has been all this research, how can the product be full of what I (as a 100K mile per year traveller) regard as such schoolboy errors.

Also interesting to observe is that there has been what I percieve to be an astroturfing campaign about how great the new products are via their social media outlets such as their Twitter account, yet nothing about the nightmares that I know for a fact they have been having with the new service. Oh, and what is it with that dreadful muppet character, Rico? How is that related to (what should be) high quality air travel?

So, not really enjoying this flight much, I contacted Air NZ to offer my feedback on the flight.

Sadly, after waiting about 6 to 8 weeks, all I got was a dreadful, bland, canned reply which basically indicated a “head in the sand” approach, that there couldn’t really be anything seriously wrong with their wonderful new product, could there, and these were all flukes which would be fixed next time I flew. Like I believed that.

They may as well have just said “You are free to take your business elsewhere”. Well, sadly, that’s what I’ve done on my next trip to California.

On 1st April, the last 747-400 operated NZ1 will leave Heathrow, and the next day London gets the “downgrade” to 777-300 service. The regulars won’t know what’s hit them.

Update – Thursday 31st March 2011

So, a few folks thought I was just having a rant here. Perhaps because it sounded a bit ranty, or I wasn’t explicit about something I wanted to get across:

What’s really disappointed me here is that an organisation which seemed to be switched on yet still be able treat it’s customers with good old-fashioned respect, and in the past seemed to have a great grasp of what people wanted, could have gone off the rails quite so spectacularly with a string of apparently shallow and unpopular moves.

SQ: Hey, folks in social housing, why not fly Business Class on our A380?

I have to wonder who is doing SQ’s media buying for billboard space, and what they might be smoking.

Why? Because at least four billboards in quick succession along the same road carried large ads suggesting one should try out SQ’s A380 Business Class product. So what? It’s some sort of blanket advertising campaign.

But, these billboards are along a road passing through an area which is characterised by social housing along one side, and light industrial units along the other. The average passerby is hardly the target market for round trips to Singapore at £3.5k a pop, right?

Being situated on the way to Belmarsh Prison (once dubbed the “British version of Guantanamo Bay”, and where the UK sends it’s really quite dangerous criminals), it’s not like it’s a through route for high rollers either. The folks passing by in these vehicles with blacked out windows aren’t likely to be leaving the country any time soon, unless they depart handcuffed to a police escort.

So, I’ll ask the question again. What is the media buyer responsible for these ads thinking?

I guess it got me thinking. I might fly SQ Biz to SIN, especially if someone else is paying. Maybe that’s the trick?

I am the market Nokia lost

Remember when more than 50% of mobile phones in people’s hands said “Nokia” on them? When 50% of those phones had that iconic/irritating/annoying signature ring tone – often because folks hadn’t worked out how to get them off the default – long a prelude to yells of “Hello! I’m on a train/in a restaurant/in a library“.

Well, this week, a memo from the new Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, has been doing the rounds online, which sums up the ferocious drubbing the once dominant Finnish company had in the handset market, at the hands of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android OS, and how it is now poised on the telecoms equivalent of a blazing oil platform.

I am part of the market that Nokia lost, maybe even forgot. I have a drawer which could be called “my life as a mobile phone user”, littered with old Nokia handsets, many of them iconic in their own right… the 2110, 6110, 6150, 6210, 6310i (probably one of the best handsets Nokia ever made), 6600, and three Communicators, the 9210i, 9500 and E90.

Why did I stop using Nokia?

Well, the last Nokia handset I tried was the N97, and since then I’ve been an iPhone convert.

While those around me used swishy iPhones, my previous loyalty to Nokia was rewarded with a slow and clunky UI, a terrible keyboard, and the appallingly bad software to run on your (Windows only) PC for backing up and synchronisation.

Nokia couldn’t even focus on keeping up with the needs of it’s previously loyal and high-yielding power users, for whom migrating handsets was always a pain, never mind the fickle throwaway consumer market.

Is it any wonder folks have deserted Nokia?

They have made themselves look like the British Leyland of the mobile phone world.

On a complete sidebar – any guesses on which airline will start up a HEL-SFO service first? There have got to be yield management folk looking at this in the wake of this news!

Update: 11 Feb 2011, 0855

As the pundits predicted, Nokia have announced they have aligned themselves with Microsoft, and their Windows mobile platform.

A flight with the Abseiling Air NZ Captain

I thought the name sounded familiar when I heard the Captain’s welcome aboard before departing Auckland to skirt around the bottom of Cyclone Wilma – Peter Clulow. Where had I heard that name before…

Then I realised that it was the Air New Zealand Captain that abseiled down a building in London as part of their great “It’s a Kiwi Thing” campaign a couple of years ago.

While the first half hour of the flight was “interesting” thanks to Wilma – from my vantage point sat in 2K, right up in the nose of the mighty 747, it was possible to hear the wind whipping around the airframe – it certainly can’t have been as hair raising as rappelling of the front of a building, which is probably not a bad thing.