Quality Is A Way Of Life…

Quality is not a program…it is a lifestyle…a way of life!

I last visited Tokyo in 1994. We were part of a global delegation meeting to discuss and share our experiences with the Total Quality Programs we were implementing in our respective organizations. We rapidly realized that English as a spoken language was still not quite the acceptable lingua franca there. However I can share two anecdotes from personal experience, that will demonstrate that regardless of language constraints and limitations…the sheer strength of that country’s quality and customer satisfaction ethic laid to rest any residual ‘Tower of Babel’ concerns we may have had.

Tales from Tokyo – 1:

We were travelling by the famed Tokyo Metro system one night, after a meeting at Yokohama. We had used some mixed transport options that night, including shuttle bus, the overland train service, and the last leg by subway. My friend and I were probably too engrossed in conversation and missed our stop. We were obviously very lost, and our demeanor probably made that self-evident. There was a group of University students milling about the train exit and we approached them and asked (in English) how we should correct out error and get back on track. They clearly did not speak much English, however somehow they seemed to intuitively guess that we were lost…and needed help.

They became engaged in a very animated conversation with each other, grabbing a subway map, looking up at the train’s railway station guide map listed on the wall, peering outside, etc.

Then the student who had been most animated of them all, communicated to us with a thumbs up sign …that they would take care of us.

What happened next was surreal. These kids proceeded to escort us off at the next stop, and then got us to board another train that would take us to where we needed to get off. But they did not just put us on the train – they actually stayed with us all the way, got off at our stop, and then proceeded to point and gesticulate as to the proper exit we would need to take to get back on the road home from the station…they then (and only then) got back on the next train and waved and said good bye in the most astonishing show of friendship and Goodwill I have ever experienced.

Tales from Tokyo – 2

My friend and I were in the habit of taking our afternoon meals at a specific restaurant with a menu that was somewhat less intrinsically ‘Japanese Cuisine’ centric than most of the other eating places we had tested. While I had less of an issue finding something to eat, my friend was vegetarian, and therefore we did need to be somewhat picky with where we chose to dine.

At any rate, we had been out strolling about the Ginza district on a lazy, rainy Saturday afternoon, and the rather expensive Umbrella I had purchased in Tokyo a few days earlier, had been put to the test. Yes it had served us well and kept us both mostly dry and safe, regardless of the heavy downpour we had experienced for the better part of the day.

The restaurant owner greeted us with a familiar Kon’nichiwa and I dutifully shook off the rain droplets from my umbrella, rolled the folds shut, and place the umbrella in the umbrella stand adjacent to the entrance (this was the common practice in most business establishments in Tokyo – the need to leave one’s umbrella in the stand on entering, and collect it while leaving).

We proceeded to order our meals and soon enough, we were done and ready to go. We took care of the cheque, and headed out to the familiar sounds of “Arigatou gozaimasu” from the owner.

We reached the exit and I noticed that my Umbrella seemed to be missing – it was reasonably easy to spot, since I had purchased a natural, crooked handle, Cane Umbrella (old school style). In addition it was a simple black fabric, unlike the colourful and modern looking umbrellas that most locals carried there.

I went back to the Owner and proceeded to explain my problem to him. He clearly did not fully comprehend what I was trying to say, but my pointing to the umbrella stand, my palms raised up in a questioning ‘where is my umbrella’ supplication seemed to break through to him. I felt bad because he looked abjectly sorry and ashamed – at once. He simply kept on uttering the single word “Mistake” over and over again. One of the patrons who spoke some English, clarified that what the owner was trying to say was that another customer had probably taken my umbrella in error and that it was a mistake. That no one would steal my umbrella and that the owner was apologizing on behalf of the customer.

The owner then reached down behind his counter, and withdrew a beautiful, hand-made umbrella, much like an expensive English Brolly. Yes this would have doubtless cost him the equivalent of a few hundred dollars in Yen at the time. He proffered his umbrella to me, with a bow and another whispered “so sorry.”

I was completely and utterly touched by this gesture and obviously refused his largesse, much to his chagrin. There were several disposable, plastic umbrellas in the stand, intended for for anyone without an umbrella, and my friend and I grabbed one each, thanked the owner, and departed…to everyone’s profound satisfaction!

The thing that I will remember to this day is the fact that our student friends went over and above the call of duty to make sure we were able to get home safely…and the owner of the restaurant chose to defend his customer’s error stoutly (and I truly believe that no one would steal my umbrella purposely) – as well as offer to compensate with a replacement which was at least 10 to 15 times of greater value than what I had lost…both truly humbling experiences, that demonstrate that Quality and Customer Satisfaction need to truly become a way of life, and not just percolate as some program that we push as a flavor of the month!

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