APTA | Passenger Transport
October 12, 2009

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2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

Disney Institute: Continuous Improvement Is the Key
BY JAY HAMBURG, Special to Passenger Transport

Exceed customer expectations. That’s one of the guiding principals of the Walt Disney Company, and it’s equally applicable to those in the public transportation field.

That was the message Jeff Soluri, business programs facilitator and content specialist at the Disney Institute in Lake Buena Vista, FL, shared with participants in two Oct. 7 sessions at the APTA Annual Meeting in Orlando. The titles of the 90-minute sessions were “Disney’s Approach to Quality Service” and “Leading Through Turbulent Times.”

Soluri explained that if a public transportation agency wants to establish itself as a success and maintain its reputation as a leader, it must find ways to continually improve—even during turbulent economic times.

While managing change can be frightening, he said, those who want to lead must find a way to calmly use their organization’s core values as a guide to reinventing or, at least, modifying their operations.

He asked transportation leaders to examine the way they manage both their customers and their employees. Soluri used as an example a company that sees its workers as “units” who “service” their “users.” Disney, by contrast, sees that same transaction as cast members helping their guests.

Changing the employer-employee dynamic also means a shift in the way workers view themselves while reinforcing a shared mission for everyone in the company, from longtime managers to brand-new maintenance workers.

Because many guests ask janitorial employees at Disney properties for help and directions, Soluri noted, the company trains those workers in customer relations. In keeping with the company’s vision, janitors are known as “custodial hosts” and maids are “housekeeping hostesses.”

As part of the Disney commitment to continually exceed expectations, cast members at the company’s theme parks also learn to spot guests who seem confused or unsure of where they’re headed. The employees are taught to offer help before being asked.

Disney prides itself on providing feel-good service to its visitors, which means that there are no “stupid” questions, only helpful responses. For example, he said, instead of poking fun at someone who asks: “When does the 3 o’clock parade start?”, cast members are expected not only to confirm the correct time, but also to tell the guests when and where they should show up to catch the best, shady spots for viewing the parade.

Part of Disney’s theme park success, Soluri said, has been its willingness to confront negative stereotypes about its business. When the original Disneyland opened in 1955, the company knew it had to overcome and redefine the nature of what many expected to be something like a carnival experience. On opening day the park was plagued with problems, but guests wanted to return because of the friendly and helpful way they were treated during the difficulties.

From the start, Disney knew it wanted to provide good memories for guests. Good memories are more than having fun on the rides, Soluri stressed; they also include astonishing visitors with the lengths to which cast members would go to help out other guests.

Applying Disney Practices to the Transit Industry
Soluri, who has worked at Disney for 30 years, challenged transit operators to face and even list the negative stereotypes that exist about their own industry. That’s the only way, he said, to start to find ways to overcome these perceptions though improving service, which will lead to a more favorable impression.

He listed a number of severe challenges that have faced Disney’s theme parks during their history, including a takeover attempt, the slump in tourism following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and several hurricanes at the Florida parks.

Organizations should have contingency plans to deal with potential troubles, Soluri stressed. Finding those solutions may be difficult, but proactive planning will create a confident set of leaders who are more likely to remain calm during a crisis and stay true to their organizations’ core values when faced with that crisis.

Soluri also emphasized that improvement and change are not the exclusive province of managers and the top brass. Disney, he said, encourages ideas from frontline workers and from the thousands of customers who e-mail, phone, and write every day with feedback, compliments, or complaints.

Every person associated with the company, he said, is a consultant.

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