One tug. That is all it takes. But the implications can be far-reaching. That one tug can mean the difference between a happy customer and a disgruntled one. The principle behind this concept is so simple yet so powerful. This is how it works. In an assembly plant of a car manufacturing company, there is a rope that traverses the floor. When any defect is detected in any part of the assembling process, an employee can tug on to the rope and instantly, the entire process will have to come to a halt.
Once the entire process shuts down, the team leader will then find out why the rope was pulled. The suspected issue will then be dealt with before the process restarts. By nipping the defect right in the bud, the problem is prevented from spreading any further. The name given to this rope is the Andon Cord.
The concept of the Andon Cord is often attributed to W. Edwards Deming, the great management consultant behind the concept of Total Quality Management (TQM). Mr. Demings is the same chap who is credited with this saying: “Put a good person in a bad system, and the system will win every time.” He evidently believed in setting up the right systems. Some literature however attributed the original concept to the Toyota founder, Sakichi Toyoda. The word Andon itself means “paper lantern” in Japanese, having first been widely used by Toyota Motor Corporation.
Over the years, the Andon Cord has evolved to other mechanisms. In more recent times, the Andon Cord is now more of the Andon Board—a colour-coded electronic board that indicates the existence of a problem at any specific workstation at any point in time. The status of each part of the process is indicated by a specific colour on the board. Fusing the mechanism with more modern technology, the Andon Boards of today are a far cry from the simple cords of the past.
The Andon Board has also been adapted for various uses. It is used in many machines, equipment or devices. A very common variation of the Andon Cord is the warning light on a car’s dashboard that begins blinking when the gas tank is getting close to empty or when there is a change in the tire pressure.
Behind all of these variations and adaptations, the idea remains unchanged—to stop something wrong from escalating as quickly as possible. It prevents things that could have easily been managed at the nascent stages from growing to behemoths that require enormous strength and vast resources to handle.
The success of the Andon Cord can be ascertained by the fact that many organisations have also adopted it or variations of the principle. Seattle, Washington-based global e-commerce giant Amazon is one of those companies that makes use of the Andon Cord. For every product that is shipped to customers, support agents can “tug on the cord” when there is a problem with a product or products. Defective products, wrong products being sent out as well as faulty packaging can all cause the Andon Cord to be pulled. This act ensures that all sales and shipments of that particular inventory are stopped and checked before the product reaches customers. According to the company, practicing the Andon Cord principle has resulted in less returns and fewer customer complaints.
Although the Andon Cord (or Board) was, and is still predominantly, associated with the manufacturing process, I believe it can have very important uses in the service industry. It is true that with service as opposed to a product, there is nothing tangible to hold on to. There is no product moving from one part of a factory to another part. There are no physical parts being added to other parts to come out with a final product. However, there is still a process through which every service goes through before getting to the final consumer.
In a typical eatery, the process involves the customer placing the order, the kitchen preparing the food, waiters taking the food from the kitchen and then finally, the food being placed before the customer. A visit to the car dealership or the auto mechanic’s shop for servicing of one’s car goes to a similar process. The servicing is booked, the diagnosis is done, vehicle is thereafter serviced while the customer waits. When it is all said and done, the vehicle is brought back to the customer after payment is sorted out. In a typical banking transaction, the process is not too different. Customer initiates the transaction—a deposit or a withdrawal request, in writing. The teller or officer in charge takes the customer’s request, checks are made and then the customer is served. From the ongoing it is clear that most, if not all, service transactions take on similar patterns and processes.
Service organisations should therefore not be left out of the Andon Principle. As a service goes through the process, there are may be issues at any point in time. In adopting the Andon Principle, the organisation can simply institute a system where at any point in time, an employee can alert the team to something that is not right. The alert can take any form. It can be as simply as a simple statement or as dramatic as a whistle being blown to indicate that something is wrong. If there is an employee whose mood might affect the customer’s impression of the quality of the service, another employee should have the power to draw the attention of the team.
It is important in a service team that individuals are encouraged to speak up when things are not going well. Well-performing teams are those in which colleagues have permission to speak up, without fear of being victimised. The leaders of such teams explicitly encourage members of the team to speak up. Teams in which there is no freedom to speak up eventually suffer the consequences of poor performance.
In my experience, some team members do not speak up even things are going wrong because they believe when the day of reckoning comes, they would be exempted from the consequences. That is an unhealthy way of looking at things. What these employees forget is that when things do not meet the expectations of the customer, that customer does not care who caused the problem. To the disappointed customer, it is the entire organisation that is to blame. If disgruntled customers take their business elsewhere, it is the entire organisation that suffers.
A very important attribute of the principle of the Andon Cord is the fact that the power to tug on to the cord is invested in any individual in the line of the manufacturing process. In other words, regardless of one’s position, if something is going wrong, the individual is not afraid to speak out. On too many occasions, the fear of superiors keeps employees from voicing out their opinions when things are not going well. For fear of being punished, lower level employees will prefer to sit back and keep quiet, even if that means things going very wrong. Adopting the Andon Cord principle puts an end to this practice.
An added advantage of having a service team in which there is no fear of speaking up is that the freedom aids employees to come up with more creative ways to serve the customer. Knowing that they will not be penalise for speaking their mind, staff become free to share their views on what the organisation can do better.
Another very important advantage of using the Andon Cord principle is that it sends a message to all stakeholders that the company takes customer service seriously. If anybody at all within the organisation can stop the process, then the organisation really means business. It is walking the “we-care-about-the-satisfaction-of-our-customers” talk at its very best.
Another merit of implementing the practice of the Andon Cord is that it puts every one of the service team members on their toes. Knowing that anyone can call the team’s attention to something that is not right makes everyone alert to the signs of poor customer service. Signs of trouble are quickly spotted and averted as soon as possible. This self-monitoring is essential if the team is to provide consistent and constant feats of service excellence.
One question that comes up a number of times when the topic of the Andon Cord comes up is what if it is a false alarm. In my opinion, it is a “better safe than sorry” situation. The time and energy spent in verifying if something has gone wrong is worth it, if you ask me. It is better to delay the customer for a few minutes to get the one the best of service than to rush a present a service that is substandard. A delay that results in good service can be understood by every reasonable customer. Nothing, however, can be used to explain away poor service.
One of the beautiful things about success is that it leaves footprints. Those who want to achieve success can therefore learn from what has happened in the past to guide their steps. The concept of the Andon Cord has proven very successful in the manufacturing process over several decades and nothing shows that the concept cannot be adapted to suit the service industry. Service organisations can learn so much about the Andon Cord from their manufacturing colleagues. The lessons to be learnt can have positive effects on the quality of service provided by these organisations. It might be a little cord but a simple tug on it can go a long way.