This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Business Agility, sponsored by IBM. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Business Agility site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

Agile Like Disney

The Mouse has a lot to teach us about agile customer service and efficiency in handling crowds, and the Disney Institute offers consulting services to teach it.

A consulting subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company trains organizations in how to be more "Disney-like," increasing the agility and effectiveness of their customer-facing staff.

Agile companies pay attention to their customers' needs. In many cases that's easier said than done, and some companies haven't a clue even how to begin figuring it out. Increasing numbers of these companies are turning to the Disney Institute in order to learn some tips and techniques.

According to the profile in the New York Times, Disney Institute revenue has tripled in recent years. They recently hired a national sales force. They now send their executives and consultants to customer sites around the world, which represents a change: before, people had to travel to Disneyland or Disney World to partake of advice from the Disney Institute.

"Desperate for new ways to connect with consumers, an increasing array of industries and organizations are paying Disney to teach them how to become, well, more like Disney," said the Times. The sideways economy, and the need to become more agile, have prompted outfits from car dealers to the Super Bowl organizers to reach out to the Disney Institute for better ways to pay more attention to customers' needs. Another impetus is the fact that the Web "gives unhappy customers a megaphone," in the words of the Institute's CEO, quoted in the Times.

The roots of the Disney Institute go back to the 1980s, when the Walt Disney Company was featured in the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. In response to demand, Disney offered a program called "The Disney Approach to People Management," and eventually formalized the process under the Disney Institute in 1996.

If you have not heard of this outfit, it's not surprising: they keep a low profile, and for good reason. "A couple of years ago, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics came under fire for a plan to spend $130,000 on Disney advice while laying off staff members. The Iowa City Press-Citizen described state legislators as 'understandably appalled,'" the Times reported. Spin it how you will, a situation like that just provides too many opportunities for juicy headlines.

Yet Disney has a lot to teach in the realms of hospitality, efficiency, and the behavior of crowds. They have been closely studying the visitors to their theme parks -- 120 million of them last year -- for decades, since long before the availability of tracking technology and advanced analytics. Disney must have performed extensive runs of what today we would call A-B testing in order to figure out that it's best to place trash cans every 27 paces, "the average distance a visitor carries a candy wrapper before discarding it," as the Times noted.

It's a good bet that Disney is now employing the full panoply of data gathering and predictive analytics at its theme parks; the Times piece did not go into this aspect of operations.

Neither the Disney Institute nor anyone else is guaranteed to cause your customer-facing representatives to smile more. "You can't take Disney and just plug it in," the Institute's CEO has said. Like much else in the process of improving corporate agility, it's a matter of culture.