Tribute: Process Excellence and the Genius of Steve Jobs

Add bookmark

Steve Towers

After the news today Apple’s founder and visionary Steve Jobs had passed away aged 56, so much is being said rightly about the technical genius of the man. His profound impact on lives is clear from the global tributes from world leaders, industry luminaries and oft times competitive rivals.

But beyond his astute commercial insight lies a deeper truth, which is much more important to Process Professionals and all us involved in building and developing Process Excellence. We cannot easily quantify the impact on all of us. To live a life and touch so many people in such a significant way is incredible. What a truly amazing person.

I don’t know where I would personally be without my iPhone, iPad and iTunes. To briefly reflect on his impact in our process world I would like to share three of his key business insights that inspire me.

The organigramme for Apple reflects a view of the world very different from the classic industrial age functional top-down left-right production silo’s:


Where did this notion come from? What imperative created this different way of looking at business? How does Apple consistently deliver exceptional performance for their shareholders, customers and employees? Here are some of the insights that I believe Steve Jobs brought to Apple to make it the world-beater it is today:

Insight Number 1: Discern the real need

"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

How do you discern the real customer need and not just the want when so often the customer doesn’t know it themselves? Part of this genius is to transcend the customer surveys, research and legions of marketing agencies telling you about customer desires. You need to go beyond that and Steve Jobs did and described a way of thinking through the successful customer outcome and then, only then, align everything you do, through your processes, people and technology to achieving that objective. A collaborator (and sometimes Apple competitor) Jeff Bezos from Amazon describes the process as "working backwards". He encapsulates the essence of this outside-in view of business "Hey, rather than ask what are we good at, ask who our customers are and what they need. We will figure out how to give it to them."

So fine, customer need is articulated. What about how we organise the business to deliver it? This next stage involved going beyond good technical design.

Insight Number 2: Customer Experience is Not Just For the Marketing Department

At workshops and seminars you would sometimes hear Steve Jobs say "it is all about the customer experience". To many that appears just another marketing phrase however to the folks in Apple that mean a world of difference and impacts every task, activity and outcome you create.

How so? To understand this statement implies an appreciation of what actually creates the customer experience, and naturally this is through the process. Think about the use of an iPhone (or the many similar me-too’s now out there). How many finger swipes does it take you to access the telephone number of a colleague? How many actions do you need to access your diary? How many interactions do you need to obtain information, say the address of your local restaurant? That is all in the process and design and describes a way of thinking about process that separates cause (the interactions) from effect (the resulting tasks and activities). Just stop for a moment. Do you design process by describing tasks and activities, or do you look ‘outside-in’ and describe the interactions that create the customer experience?

If you start with the premise that the cause of all work for any organisation is the customer it is logical to deduce that everything you do within the process world should contribute to a fulfilling customer experience. Otherwise it is potentially dumb stuff and may not be required. Steve Jobs fundamental understanding of this aspect of business has allowed his companies to design, create and deliver the customer experience in all its services and products.

Insight Number 3: Design from the Outside-In

Going hand in hand with the customer experience is the alignment of all work (another name for process!) towards the successful customer outcome. That implies teams of people able to share and collaborate across the business and partners in a unique and rewarding way. No longer functional specialists Apple workers now share in dynamic teams the responsibility for delivering a customer expectations. In essence every internal hand-off of information and data must explicitly contribute to the achievement of the successful outcome and in doing so create a clear line of sight form every task to the customer. The Apple measurement systems reflect that. The rewards systems reinforce that. The people policies ensure that.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA observed "We are at the very point in time when a 400-year old age is dying and another is struggling to be born, a shifting of culture, science, society, and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced." That pretty much sums up what Steve Jobs has been about. He has introduced and made real a way of being and doing business that acknowledges the change to the way we think of ourselves. It isn’t about production lines, efficiency and functions. It is about the customer and the work we do to deliver successful outcomes.

Thank you Steve. You have inspired the world and you will no doubt go onto inspire heaven. A life to be very proud of.