Obviating avoidable failures

The telecom industry is forever gazing at the future, but instead of focusing on LTE or the threat from Apple, there's a lot to be said for simply executing on existing operations; like stripping out costs, tuning the network, and getting billing and customer service to where they should be.

Most operators have done all they can on the first two and, with the aid of battalions of billing firms, they're doing what they can about the third.

But it's the last one that offers carriers the potential for lasting differentiation. In the age of the smartphone and mobile apps, service providers may not own the customer like before. But they are best-placed to make an impression.

Unfortunately, that impression is too often not a positive one. Right now it's high mobile data roaming charges that are enraging customers. A quick search through the twittersphere throws up angry complaints from users who have unintentionally run up hefty roaming bills.

It's not hard. I intentionally ran up a bill downloading just a handful of emails while abroad at Christmas. The cost, I later discovered, was $60. It wouldn't take long to hike that into the thousands.

Why not share?

Often in these incidents, users only discover the problem after their account has been frozen after getting to a limit set by the operator - say around $2,000. Is it too difficult for roaming partners to exchange billing data to allow them to send customers a real-time alert when they get to a pre-set limit?

Operators are quick to offer IDD and data deals to customers when they log onto a roaming network. How about if also offering warnings about potentially steep data bills, rather than leaving the end-user to argue it out with some poor customer service rep five weeks later?

Another part of the customer relationship, and just as critical, is customer service delivery. That means eliminating some of the complexity that seems to be ingrained in the way telcos are run.

One possible solution comes from the unlikely source of a Boston surgeon, Atul Gawande. In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, he finds in the humble checklist a tool that can simplify daunting levels of complexity.

It sounds hokey, but the stats prove it. Gawande developed the "Safe Surgery Saves Lives" program for the UN, which in the trial alone brought down post-operation fatality rates by 47%. The surgical checklist is now a best-practice item in operating theaters worldwide.

According to Gawande, the first checklist was created in the 1930s after a B-17 bomber crashed on a test flight because the pilot forgot to unlock the rudder controls. Figuring that the problem was that the pilot was overwhelmed with tasks, Boeing worked up the checklist in response. The aviation industry now uses dozens of checklists to cover different scenarios.

Its power is that it is more than just a prompt for essential tasks.

On complex projects it works by forcing communication. On a large building site, for example, where perhaps 20 or so different disciplines are involved, issues must be solved by agreement between multiple parties. Modern project management software automatically generates emails to all the people concerned, requiring their sign-off. One construction engineer tells Gawande the only improvement in the business in the last few decades has been in tracking and communication.

The book recounts Gawande's experience in applying checklist concept to operating theaters, where each year thousands of people die because of "avoidable failures."

The beauty of checklists is they require groups to work together on agreed items. As well as taking out complexity, they build teams and democratize decision-making.

There's a role begging in telecom carriers, surely. If your company has walls that need breaking down, information to be shared or efficiencies to be gained, why not build a checklist? Be warned, it's harder than it looks - but it works.