Mar 12, 2006

I look fabulous

[Stay with me through the story - I will get to a reflection about lean before too long...]
I’m often told my hair looks nice, but I’m quick to say it’s my hair salon that deserves the compliment. I had always planned to follow my mother’s example and gray gracefully, but a photo of me with my son when he graduated from Michigan Tech suggested I needed a better plan. Not only did my hair color look drab, my hairstyle was not at all stylish.

I realized I needed to seek a new salon, probably in an upscale part of the Detroit area, and I’d have to expect to pay more to look nicer. I decided to try Gina Agosta in Novi. When I arrived, on a Saturday, I checked in at the counter, which was swarming with customers and staff. Normally, that would mean I’d sit down in a waiting area and bide my time. Not here.

A girl (I guess we’re allowed to say “girl” again in a post-feminist age) appeared by my side and gave me a little orientation. She showed me neatly rolled dark green smocks in a wicker armoire next to an alcove with a coat closet and a couple of dressing rooms. When I had my clothes covered, the young lady escorted me to the color department and introduced me to Kristy, asked if I’d like anything to drink, then went to get me coffee.

The décor was elegant, with fresh flowers and framed pictures of models with gorgeous, if impractical, hairstyles. Kristy acted as though she didn’t notice the state of my haircolor and asked what I’d like her to do. She radiated sweetness and competence. After an hour, my hair was a shiny reddish brown, and Kristy took me to meet the stylist who would cut it. After another hour, I looked fabulous – my hair did, anyway. I cheerfully paid about four times what I’d be charged in an ordinary salon. Years later, I’m still happy to part with a relative fortune to be pampered at Gina’s.

What does this have to do with lean? As in the airports Dan Jones and Jim Womack are fond of writing about, I am both the customer and the product. I have to be moved around a space with a certain amount of efficiency and I have to feel satisfied with the service. Non-value-added time has to be minimized for me and the provider of the service. Perceived value must be commensurate with cost. And as exemplified by Toyota, respect for people must be maintained throughout.

Does the salon look at optimizing employee utilization, queuing customers in inventory? No. There are a lot more people working at Gina’s than absolutely necessary to deliver the service. It turns out that many are apprentices, learning at Gina’s instead of at beauty school. They do the escorting, coffee-fetching and shampooing.

You will rarely see a newly-smocked client standing around waiting to be taken to the colorists, even if an apprentice hasn’t jumped to her aid, I have had the first-chair stylist interrupt his work briefly to take me to the color department and ask if I’d like something to drink – the phrase must be part of the standard work – then signal an apprentice to take over. In any other salon, his counterpart would be haughtily oblivious to anything but his own talent.

One December 20th, probably the busiest day in the year in any beauty establishment, I arrived to learn I didn’t have an appointment until January 20th. The manager of the day was on the spot immediately to see what the problem was. He disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he had fit me in with a colorist’s and a stylist’s schedules. With any other salon, I would have been sitting in my car crying by now. Instead, I emerged two hours later, looking fabulous.

Sending you out of Gina Agosta’s looking fabulous was how Kristy summed up the salon’s vision and mission one day, without even realizing it. Culture defines its vision and mission implicitly. Sitting around wordsmithing some high-flown phrases has nothing to do with it.

I’ve talked to Kristy and Linda, my preferred stylist, about how Gina’s staff is uniformly happy, kind, and attentive. How does it happen? Gina is selective about who she accepts as an employee. And somehow, according to Kristy and Linda, anyone who doesn’t measure up just tends to go away. Although the experienced colorists and stylists are teaching the apprentices, the focus is always on the client. You will never find employees chatting with each other as they work.

Gina herself is not very visible. She works on clients like anyone else, focusing her attention on them. It takes a while to even realize who she is. Gina sees everything, however, and if she spots something amiss, an apprentice carries Gina’s message to get things back on track.

As Gina’s staff respects every client, she respects her staff. She sends them to hair shows and training. She pays well. When Linda reached her tenth anniversary of working at the salon, Gina offered her a trip to Florida and a stay at her vacation home there. Gina and her husband are frequently invited to and attend the girls’ weddings, even if they are many miles away. I’d guess she gives pretty nice wedding presents too. When staff members are on maternity leave, they are welcome to attend staff meetings. They remain connected and involved.

The staff members respect each other. If one has a special occasion, another will come in before normal working hours to fix her hair. One day Linda’s kids were sick, and so was her husband. John Paul told her he would take over her clients and he sent her home. Somehow he was ready for me exactly at my appointed time and never made me feel as though he was rushing to get done.

What can we learn from the Gina Agosta salon? Customer focus. A clear vision. Flow. Attention to detail. Adding value. A system capable of producing excellence, with immediate countermeasures if defects appear. And most of all – respect for people.

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