Contagious Business Philosophy the "Disney" Way!

Once every other decade a company comes around that dares to defy the odds and do things differently.  We saw this with Henry Ford in the 1900's-1920's, with Walt Disney in the 1930-1960's, and with Saturn and Netscape in the 1990's. 

Here's a friendly Q & A about how to defy conventional wisdom and transform your company into a contagiously successful business. It was developed from letters written between founder Nate Naversen and Donna Brewster of the Weyerhaeuser Company in Oregon.

Dear Nate,

I am employed by Weyerhaeuser Company. Disney is one of our corporate heroes in developing pride and customer service. Many of our employees have benchmarked the Disney maintenance department in Orlando, along with classes at the Disney University and visits to the Disney theme parks.

My thoughts are, correct me if I'm wrong, that the design group would be an excellent study for our Committee. Previous trips to Disney have taught us the importance they place on safety... I came across your name on the net... and so I contacted you for any information or help you can give.

Thank you for your time.

Donna Brewster
Weyerhaeuser Company
Cottage Grove, Oregon

Hi Donna,

To begin, I believe Weyerhaeuser can be far superior to Disney in terms of pride and customer service. I know they may seem like an untouchable corporate hero, but take it from a person who has seen it from the inside: It can easily be improved upon.  The key is to capture the spirit of a contagiously successful business.

The following is a list of some of the key philosophies that made the Walt Disney Company and other companies a success, in Q & A form. If you can apply them to your situation you will certainly have a contagiously successful company.   

Q> Do you know what the Disney product is?

A> "We create happiness."   Who wouldn't want to work for a company whose product is happiness?  

A question to ask yourself:  What is Weyerhaeuser’s product? Is it wood product?  Maybe, but I think not.  If you became a contagiously successful business, maybe your product would become home sweet home?

Apply positive, innovative thinking to your situation, and you will begin to transform your company.

Q> What are the three keys to Disney quality?

A> Courtesy, Efficiency & Show

It is well known that no expense was spared to make Disney films and Disney theme parks the absolute best. But what made Disney so successful was the attitude they took while doing it.   In fact, Walt Disney spent so much of his capital on his projects that the bankers and all of his competitors thought he was crazy.

Did you know that Walt Disney once completely re-did an almost complete black and white cartoon because new color technology came out? His company was nearly bankrupt at that point, but he felt it was worth the risk. The movie was called Flowers & Trees, and it won an Oscar!  Why was he so successful? He far surpassed everyone's expectations. 

Now, just for your information, if you start to surpass people's expectations, you will probably end up spending much more on things that financial minded people find frivolous. But in the end, it will make all the difference in the world.

Caring about product over the bottom line and people before sales to surpass expectations is a good step to transforming your company into a contagiously successful one!

A fourth Disney key was added after Walt's death: Safety

thunder.jpg (8439 bytes)Did you know that the built-in structural safety factors on Disney's roller coasters are generally three times what the competition uses and is required by structural code? *

It costs more initially to design and construct the attraction, but people rarely die on Disney attractions due to mechanical failure. No wonder Disney has such a good reputation when it comes to safety.  People feel safe at Disney parks, and the extra business generated from such a positive guest outlook more than pays for the extra cost of the coaster.

* Source: Interview with Disneyland ride & safety engineer, 1994

Positive guest service:

Here is a list of some of the activities a Disney cast member (employee) cannot do while "on stage" at a Disney theme park.

  1. Eat
  2. Drink
  3. Smoke
  4. Sleep
  5. Sit down
  6. Chew gum
  7. Lean against a wall or a railing,
  8. Fold his or her arms.

Does this seem extreme? Of course it does. But when it comes to customer service, it makes perfect sense. Imagine how a potential guest would feel when walking up to a cast member doing one of the above no-nos.

Making sure the cast-member is courteous and efficient is key while "onstage" at a Disney theme park. It helps create a positive guest experience whenever a guest interacts with an employee.

"The first year (of Disneyland) I leased out the parking concession, brought in the usual security guards -- things like that -- but soon realized my mistake. I couldn't have outside help and still get over my idea of hospitality.   So now we recruit and train every one of our employees. I tell the security police, for instance, that they are never to consider themselves cops. They are there to help people. The visitors are our guests. It's like running a fine restaurant. Once you get the policy going, it grows."  -- Walt Disney

The cast members who follow these rules develop a sense of pride about their work.  When these rules were first put in place, they quickly began to believe in the need to sacrifice their personal convenience in order to be part of something special.  Guess what?  It works!

Q> Are there any V.I.P.s at Disneyland?

Answer: Yes. Everyone is a V.I.P.

Fact: Too many places of employment make a customer feel like it is an inconvenience to be given service. Personally, I feel this way every time I walk into an automobile repair shop or an auto parts store. At those establishments customers are forced to wait at the customer service counter for minutes at a time while the service man works in front of them, ignoring their presence.

Turn it around, and make them feel like a V.I.P. and you have the beginnings of excellent customer service.  

Q> True or False: Disney World's Magic Kingdom was built on the ground.

A> False. Disney World was built on the second floor of a structure.

Let me ask:  What sort of fool puts an entire theme park on the second floor of a building? It seems crazy, does it not? At first maybe, but by building it that way Disney solved many operational dilemmas and contributed to a contagious guest environment!

Now Disney can quickly whisk supplies in and out of the park from below without having to bring a truck through the front gates. In medical emergencies, heart attack victims may be quickly taken off stage to a medical facility without disturbing most guests. Also, at Disney World, the guests never see a dumpster. Trash may be placed in an underground vacuum network at dozens of locations around the park, where it may be quickly vacuumed to a central receiving area, saving time and energy for custodial people. Lastly, cast members in costume can walk straight into their themed land without having to walk through another land. How out of place would it be to have a Tomorrowland costumed cast member walking through Frontierland?

Truly, there are many positive benefits to their innovative, seemingly crazy plan. It is counter-intuitive, yet it works! 

Q> What is the job of the custodial sweeper at Disneyland?

Incorrect answer: Pick up trash

Correct answer: To be a human signpost.

Says former Disney executive Keith Kolbo, "There is something very therapeutic going into the park to simply help people find their way, even if it's just to point out a bathroom.  I used to go out after a rough day, just to walk around in the park to give directions. It did wonders for my psyche."

Along the same lines, Walt Disney used custodial people to guide and provide friendly service to guests. As a secondary job, they also swept up popcorn... but primarily they were there to help people. Imagine what that does to the attitude of someone who is told his job is to pick up trash!

Apply positive, innovative thinking like this to your situation and you will begin to transform your company.

Q> Maintenance: When does Disneyland shut down?

A>: Never. Disneyland never sleeps...

When the Disneyland closes, the maintenance starts. At the beginning of every day the park is to look like it looked on opening day July 17th, 1955. Not only does this make the guest experience better, but it also creates a better atmosphere for the cast members. At night, everything is repaired to look like new. Instead of having one or two people maintaining the park, Disney hires hundreds. Do those workers pay for themselves? I guarantee they do.

"Disneyland is a work of love.  We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money. . . even trying to keep that Park clean is a tremendous expense. And those sharp pencil guys tells you, 'Walt, if we cut down on maintenance, we'd save a lot of money.'  But I don't believe in that -- it's like any other show on the road.  It must be kept fresh and clean." -- Walt Disney

Imagine what a maintenance philosophy like this could do for the morale of your employees. What if your employees got to use seemingly brand new machines every day?

Weyerhaeuser should always keep the mill updated with the best equipment, and it should always be replaced well before old machinery wears out. It may mean hiring a staff of five or six guys to go through and make the mill "new” each night.  I am not an expert in the logging industry (even though I grew up around it), but I'm sure you can apply this sort of thinking to your situation.

An Example from United Parcel Service:

777.gif (6280 bytes)A few years ago, UPS had a commercial on TV talking about the maintenance and cleanliness of their aircraft fleet. They got it exactly right. The announcer narrated the commercial something like this:


Each night we wash every single one of our 300 aircraft fleet.

Of course, our competitors think we are crazy.

But having clean planes helps keep mechanical problems down, ensuring quick delivery of your package.

And the lack of dirt on our planes saves thousands of dollars in jet fuel each year.

Plus.... we happen to like our planes clean

That's exactly the right attitude. The extra cleanliness contributes to a good work environment, higher employee morale, a sharper corporate image, improved maintenance, and it even saves jet fuel!  Their philosophy is innovative, counter-intuitive, and it helps contribute to a positive, contagiously successful business.


If you are going to be successful in your endeavor, remember: Newer rules and procedures are never the answer, nor is a cleverly worded corporate mission statement. Mission statements come off as very hollow sounding when the management is not sincere.  On the other hand, transforming your company with contagious business techniques will empower your employees to make a difference.

Always surpass your employees and your clients’ expectations. If your employees expect a $100 Christmas bonus, give them $300. If a client expects a shipment in 3 weeks... get in there in three days. It WILL cost more.  You make your company special by doing the things that other companies will not do because it seems 'above and beyond'. After time you will begin to reap a snow-ball-effect of positive benefits.

"Well, I think by this time my staff, my group of young executives, and everything else, are convinced that Walt is right.  The quality will out. And so I think they're going to stay with that policy because it's proved that it's a good business policy. Give people everything you can give them. Keep the place as clean as you can keep it. Keep it friendly, you know. Make it a real fun place to be.." -- Walt Disney

No idea is too outlandish.

When we are brainstorming a new attraction during the bluesky phase, the one thing we are never allowed to do is say "No, that will never work," when someone is presenting an idea. As soon as one person says, "'No, I don't like it," the creative process stops.

On the contrary, when a working environment is set up so that no idea is bad; eventually someone blurts out a crazy idea that leads to a radically wonderful new concept. Nearly every great idea starts from someone's crazy blurt. But you have to get the ball rolling by setting up an environment where 'no' is not allowed.   If you can get your employees in this mindset, you will have a company made up of positive, contagious "Yes-men" before long.  That is a very good thing.

Congratulations. You are now an un-official Disney University graduate.  I wish you all the success in the world in transforming your business into a contagiously successful business.


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