Quality’s in the Eye of the Beholder

I’m a big believer in simplicity. It’s as big a competitive weapon as other forms of innovation, and it’s also one of the main ingredients in efficiency (of which I’m also a fan).

A year and a half ago, we assembled a small team to go look at how we defined quality at Sun. We started by interviewing folks about the quality metrics we tracked. Our quality programs had various names (CQI, CLI, ABP, etc.), all of which were built with the best intentions of defining and improving quality. And like everyone else in the industry, we used all forms of long customer surveys to elicit nuances and insights. From marketing to operations.

But when I read the interview results, most employees didn’t know what our core quality programs were. Most folks didn’t know they were compensated on the results. And most folks that knew about our quality programs had little context for how what they did every day contributed to quality. But worst of all, some customers who had perfect system level availability (a prominent measure of quality for CIO’s) weren’t buying any more. And from where I sat, most of what we were building internally were measures of something that approximated quality. Or measured history, and not reality.

So we changed our quality programs. We put aside a huge amount of well intentioned work, and moved to a very simple measure of quality.

The simple measure was based upon asking a customer one question, and one question only. ‘Would you recommend Sun?’ The only allowable answers were ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ Results would be tallied and tracked, cut by customer type, product group, geographic region, industry, etc. – with the resulting number, a decimal value between zero and one, representing the percentage of respondents that indicated Yes (as in, “yeah, I’d recommend you to my friends.”) This percentage number is now known as ‘RSI,’ or the Recommend Sun Index.

A recommendation is the definition of a champion, as in “Reenlist our Champions” (which Sun employees will recognize as Priority #3).

We rolled this out about a year ago. I’ve spoken to tons of customers about it, and they love the basic premise. We’ve even adopted the same quality metric to measure employee satisfaction, where we ask employees ‘would you recommend Sun?’ (Wall Street analysts already think this way – they rate the stock with a readily binary measure, ‘buy’ or ‘sell.’)

How is RSI put into action? We ask customers and developers and partners, basically every constituency at Sun the world over, ‘Would you recommend Sun?’ If they say ‘yes,’ we ask why. And we do more of what they say (and assemble best practices – turns out simply asking the question is a best practice). If they they say ‘no,’ we know we have a quality problem – even if they’re buying from us today.

So what defines quality at Sun? Whatever it takes to get a customer to recommend us – quality’s in the eye of the beholder (like the government customer that said they wanted more blinking lights on the bezels of our machines to make it easier to impress parliamentary decision makers – no, I’m not joking, and no, I won’t tell you which government). It’s easy to measure, easy to understand.

The biggest ancillary benefit is it will tend to get the whole company behind the salesforce – and to live by the same reality the sales team experiences every day: last I checked, every sales rep at Sun has to ask their customer a singular question with a binary, yes or no answer, too: “Can I have the order?” (Developers make the same decision – to download/participate or not.) What’s good for the goose…

When it comes to compensation, that’s getting easier, too: we’re moving toward incenting every individual at Sun on the overall RSI of the company – to get everyone focused, no matter where or to whom they report, on driving the willingness of the person on the phone, in the visit center, on the internet or in the customer or employee base – to recommend Sun. Everybody influences RSI, from the receptionists to the executives. How? What a great thing to think about.

You buy from the people and companies you recommend. A repeat customer is the ultimate evidence of quality.

Just ask General Motors, and the other Fortune 10 customer we’re going to announce next week. Or the open source community we’re building around OpenSolaris (for whom support for a technology named Xen is apparently driving RSI). Or our Wall Street customers.

Every employee at Sun should know what RSI means – and how they can drive it.


And Doc, I agree, my speech was flat – it was the first thing I said to my colleague when I stepped off the stage. If I don’t rewrite my speeches, I get bored with the content, and if I spend all my time rewriting my speeches, I don’t get a lot of sleep – in order to preserve a veneer of mystery, I won’t tell you which was at fault at Always On. You may safely assume my RJI among speechwriters is quite low.

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