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What tail is wagging the "user happiness" dog?


March, 2002: I was in a Quality Review Board meeting at Sun, shortly after our division went Six Sigma. I started listing solution ideas for some big customer problems in my area. The woman running the meeting said, "Oh, we can't talk about solutions today! We're weeks or months away from that... we're still in the data gathering step." The Six Sigma tail wagging the customer happiness dog. September 2004: I was in a meeting at O'Reilly, emphasizing the importance of code annotation for reducing cognitive load. A production person said, "Nope, sorry, our software won't let us do that." The production tail wagging the reader happiness dog. And then there's the all-too-common IT department that makes its life easier at the expense of employees and users. Don't get me started on the Accounting department...

You can't swing a poodle in business without hitting a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario, where some process, policy, procedure, or program controls user happiness. Where we become slaves to the needs and demands of the IT department, efficiency, accounting, PR, legal, marketing, next-quarter's results, Upper Management, etc.

We've heard all of the justifications and excuses. Worst of all, these decisions are nearly always made by people with the least amount of contact with Actual Employees, let alone actual customers. Imagine working at a place where Customer Advocates -- internal evangelists for what users need -- wielded as much power as the IT guy. Where the software developers (and other employees) have the power to use the tools they need to best serve the users, even if it's a pain in the ass for the sys admins. (No offense to sys admins--I'm talking about the misguided and/or too-far-removed-from-customers ones, not the clueful.)

I'm not dissing Six Sigma or IT or Accounting or Production or Policies or Procedures or Process or whatever. I'm just saying we have to be very, very careful about who wags who, especially during that critical phase when a company transitions from a small everyone-does-everything start-up to a bigger company. Users are often best served when everyone from the manager to the developers to the accountants has to spend time on customer service and support. But when that's no longer realistic, we must work hard to make sure that nobody in the company forgets who we all really work for--the users.

We're all guilty of it -- from the big company to the two-person start-up (or the one-person author!) -- and we do need to balance the needs of the company against the needs of the customers, but I'd recommend putting a big picture of a dog in your meeting room, and emphasizing who's the dog, who's the tail, and who wags who.

Bonus link: a wonderful post by Joel Spolsky on customer service! Two thumbs way up.

Posted by Kathy on February 20, 2007 | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 2, 2007 6:56:43 AM


This was a great post.

I am in a different business called the church. But when you move from a church where a few hundred show up to where a few thousand begin to show up…it is very hard to transition from mom and pops church to a church that looks out for the whole instead of the few.

Good stuff and great blog

Posted by: Phill | Feb 20, 2007 11:59:49 AM

OR, instead of a dog, putting some pictures of typical or actual users up, so people can be very specific about who they really need to satisfy.

Posted by: John Windsor | Feb 20, 2007 12:10:25 PM

Reminds me of when I worked for one of the big boy phone companies. We had to fulfill a quota by department for TQM training completion. Big hoo-ha, big punishment if your department didn't finish. Sooo, I and my co-workers slogged through the class. One of the first meetings back, we all started to do the TQM thing and the poobah in charge said, "We don't have time for that."

Oh, and the handle on my TQM mug broke off almost instantly (It was the "Q").

Lastly, the big pile of poop is what some empty suits lovingly call "results." A rose by any other name...hmmmm...

Posted by: Mary Schmidt | Feb 20, 2007 12:40:51 PM

This seems to be the topic for blogs everywhere. It hearkens back to the idea of always keeping your audience in mind no matter if your making a movie, writing a story, or selling cell phones. Customer service should still be important, though I'm not too impressed lately. Those that don't deal with the customer on a daily basis don't have the capacity to decide how customers should be dealt with. Sadly they are the big wigs with the authority to put in place any action they want.

We do need to balance company needs with customer needs, but we should keep in mind that without those customers, without an audience, we wouldn't exist.

Posted by: Katie Cummings | Feb 20, 2007 12:50:01 PM


Customer-orientation should be built into everything that a company does. Over the last three years working as a customer management consultant with Toyota, I have seen how everything that Toyota does is driven by their customers. And I mean pretty much everything. Toyota has caused me to abandon much of what I learnt over 20 years as a consultant working with some of the biggest names in business.

But a balance is required if you are to avoid serving the wrong customers and loosing a packet in the process. I look at business as a series of over lapping circles. The first Customer circle is what outcomes your customers are looking for. The second Capabilities circle is what you are good at doing. There should be lots of overlap in these two circles, or you are in deep trouble as you loose customers. The third Cashflow circle is how you make money by doing the first two circles. There should be lots of overlap in all three circles, or you are in even deeper trouble as you head for bankruptcy.

You would be amazed how little most companies know about these three circles.

Graham Hill

Posted by: GrahamHill | Feb 20, 2007 1:27:44 PM

A large telco I once worked for had all the internal staff as the question "who is my customer?". It keeped us focused on who our business group was actually serving. It's a great question to ask, especially for managers as they often neglect to include their staff (c:

Posted by: Andrew Pietsch | Feb 20, 2007 1:38:07 PM

I hope some senior managers at our domestic airlines read this.

Posted by: Glenn (Customer Service Experience) Ross | Feb 20, 2007 3:23:28 PM

There's a phrase that I'm increasingly fond of trotting out when I see stuff like this: "misalignment of objectives". And I see it all the time, working as I do, mostly within the investment banking sector. For example, the business unit within which I work is constrained, often horribly, by our almost-but-not-quite-a-separate-entity of an infrastructure division. So we're less able to make money for the bank (and, as a consequence ourselves) because these folk have the wrong set of objectives. Not exactly their fault - the high-level objectives are set for them so that they become dog-waggers.

So we find ourselves in a situation where cost control is more important than profit creation. Crazy. And the principal reason I can't stand to work in IT any more.

Posted by: Mike Woodhouse | Feb 20, 2007 4:55:02 PM

Oh how I can agree with the IT issue. Our IT department didn't want any of the developers to have Mac's because they didn't want to support them. Except developers by nature need less support for their systems than someone from say, Finance.

I also have a few thoughts on customer service at my blog.

Posted by: Darrell | Feb 20, 2007 5:01:32 PM

For people unfamiliar with the "wag the dog" idiom, it describes a situation where something unimportant (the tail of the dog) drives the behavior of something more important (the dog itself).

Posted by: Matthew Wilson | Feb 20, 2007 5:38:29 PM

There are so many places where they work on having the correct feature list but don't put it all together so the whole is useful. And it is really great to be a part of something that does pull it all together.

For some reason my daughter has decided that Monsters, Inc. is the best movie ever and so we've watched it at least once a day since Friday. The funny thing is that I am not tired of it. It is a great film that really shows how it is supposed to be done. Then there are all the films that you're going "I paid money to waste this kind of time?"

Home shows are also a lot of fun. I like to go to Parade of Homes and thought experiment how well the home would handle a turkey dinner with all the family, from bringing home the food, to parking, to storing the good china, cooking the meal and washing the linens. You know it's bad when you start laughing at the house at some step or another, but that is most homes nowadays.

Windows vs. Mac need I say more.

It just doesn't seem to matter but there are lots of people who want to hit checkboxes on feature lists and are totally unconcerned about how those features fit together.

Sometimes it is also that the wrong things are being measured. I've been in a call center where the only metric is call time. A great way to boost your score was to just hang up. Simple, effective but not useful to anyone.

Posted by: Stephan Fassmann | Feb 20, 2007 9:42:16 PM

Critical issue... Great Post regarding it!

Posted by: Sheamus | Feb 21, 2007 6:58:19 AM

Another great post, Kathy. I always liked the way Shell at one time used to describe it. They pushed the idea of Grassroots Leadership, or in other words using the inputs of those who were at the coalface. In other words that's the front-line troops who are dealing with all those customers who are willing to give their money to the company. I said more on this in a reaction to a Seth Godin post, which I entitled Clueless Marketing Needs Grassroots Leadership.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Feb 21, 2007 9:14:01 AM

Kathy, I don't know how you do it -- once again you've hit the nail on the head for issues my office is facing *this minute*. Pardon a baseball analogy (Spring Training is upon us, after all), but you're in the zone of Sandy Koufax, circa 1963: just a great performance, every time out. Keep rockin'!

Posted by: Tim Walker | Feb 21, 2007 10:55:58 AM


Love you, just love you!
Beautiful stuff.


Posted by: Arjani | Feb 21, 2007 8:48:35 PM

i think this would make an appropriate bonus link... Who *is* that?

Posted by: James Governor | Feb 22, 2007 8:00:10 AM

I read a quote somewhere... "75% of HR managers consider hiring and retaining talent as their top priority"... what do the other 25% think their job is?

Posted by: Jon Nichols | Feb 22, 2007 6:40:05 PM

Just two things, and I hate to be a pain on a Friday. :)

1) I dislike things like dogs and wagging reminders in places like a conference room and such. Too often people use such examples in every way they can so they can get done what they want to get done. Kind of like an executive giving a company meeting and saying, "just get the work done and kill the snake!" Pretty soon, people start using that saying for every little thing no matter how big. Similar to, "in the customer's best itnerests." Well, everyone may have different ideas on what that is...

2) Sort of related, but the frustration in a company can go both ways. Developers may be frustrated with sys admins as they want to use certain tools to help the customers, but sys admins may have their own problems. It is hard to say any one side is correct without having a high amount of empathy and multi-faceted vision of the company and situations.

I love your second-to-last paragraph as that really nails it.

Posted by: LonerVamp | Feb 23, 2007 7:31:36 AM

thoughtful post, and thanks to Matthew Wilson, i am just wondering the meaning of that idiom.

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Posted by: Grup hepsi cemre eren gülşin yesemin | Jun 19, 2007 1:06:21 PM

I have seen how everything that Toyota does is driven by their customers. And I mean pretty much everything. Toyota has caused me to abandon much of what I learnt over 20 years as a consultant working with some of the biggest names in business.

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