Integrity Requires Perfection in Delivering What Customers Value

© 2024, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

In my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (2017; Reissued Edition, 2023: 478-482), I identify as one of Walt’s success principles his commitment to “Anticipate and Exceed Customer Expectations.” What follows is an excerpt demonstrating why and how Walt applied this principle.

The unfortunate truth is that it’s very difficult to satisfy customers. To do so is an immense entrepreneurial and managerial achievement. To have our expectations satisfied—to experience perfection—is something each of us desires. The amount of complaining we do is evidence of this. While the desire to experience perfection may have a certain spiritual dimension, those rare occasions when we do experience it directly can often be attributed to the heroic efforts of individuals, working together, with a commitment to achieve a common result that we highly value.

When it came to the building of Disneyland, Walt was extremely customer-driven. He once said, “Everything I do I keep a practical eye toward its appeal to the public.” To be customer-driven, Walt required his artists and designers to seek out improvement opportunities by observing and interacting with guests. Disney Imagineer and author John Hench writes:

To design most effectively for our guests, we learned that we had to observe them up close, waiting in lines with them, going on rides with them, eating with them. Walt insisted on this by saying, “You guys get down there at least twice a month. For God’s sake, don’t eat off the lot. Stay there…lunch with the guests…talk to them.” This was new to us; as filmmakers, we were used to sitting in our sweatboxes at the studio, passing judgment on our work without knowing how the public might actually respond to it. Going out into the park taught us how guests were being treated and how they responded to sensory information, what worked and what didn’t, what their needs were and how we could meet them in entertaining ways. We paid attention to guests’ patterns of movement and the ways in which they expressed their emotions. We got an idea of what was going on in their minds.

Perfection is a lofty goal that most people believe to be beyond their reach, so they never strive for it, either in their personal or professional lives. If business executives don’t think they can organize and manage to reach a lofty goal, it is almost certain that they won’t. Instead, they’ll set the bar too low and celebrate their competitively insignificant achievements. Too many organizational leaders appear to subscribe to Woody Allen’s humorous dictum that 80% of life is “just showing up.” You didn’t just show up if you worked for Walt Disney.

As one example of the culture of quality that Walt insisted upon, consider another observation by John Hench:

I became aware of how radically different Walt’s attitude to his customers was when I was loaned to another studio for a special-effects job. I was doing a film title that required an eagle to fly into a lighted foreground and land on a rock while folding his wings. I was provided with an eagle that was too old to do the stunt, and stumbled on the rocks. We watched the dailies in a dark sweatbox. When the lights came on, I saw that one of the studio executives was in the booth watching us. I said, “I’ll do this over again. We’ll get the eagle to land right, so that it looks like a conqueror.” The executive said, “No! We’ll use it. That’s okay, the bastards won’t know any different.” That was his attitude toward the people for whom he was supposed to furnish entertainment and amusement. He didn’t like them. He didn’t care. I have often wondered how many people in business really like their customers.

Consistent with this general cultural malaise and disdain for customers around the issue of quality in production, as consumers we seem to have been conditioned to accept “minimal acceptable effort” as the expected standard. As consumers, we have resigned ourselves to social and cultural mediocrity, and as a result we are disappointingly accepting when that is all we get from the organizations we deal with.

Why as consumers do we accept such low standards of behavior? Primarily because we have been led to believe that it costs more to deliver a better result, and we typically don’t want to pay more. To satisfy consumers on the single dimension of price, conventional wisdom has executive managers controlling costs as the preferred way to increase profits, thereby disregarding the expectations and perceptions of customers, and delivering mediocrity.

In too many cases business executives conclude—sometimes correctly—that consumers don’t want to pay more for that additional value. As a result, business owners and managers often build mediocrity into their business model, convinced that sound business wisdom calls for increasing profits by foregoing quality. Too often managers are encouraged to reduce costs and maximize efficiency at the micro level when what is needed is to demonstrate increased respect for customers by maximizing value creation for the system as a whole at the macro level.

Walt repudiated such destructive business practices as an economically unsound prescription for mediocrity. He held himself to very high personal standards from the start, recognizing early in his career that the public expected high standards from the Disney brand. He maintained a personal responsibility to the people who made him successful to meet those standards. Later, with regard to Disneyland, he said about the public: “When they come here they’re coming because of an integrity that we’ve established over the years. And they drive hundreds of miles. I feel a responsibility to the public.” Walt paid attention to and understood that there was an implicit value equation, a relationship between the perceived value of what was being offered, and the price consumers were willing to pay for acquisition.

Walt demonstrated to anybody in the business world who was paying attention that any cost/benefit equation pointing to the sacrifice of values sought by customers is false. It is wrong on all accounts: moral, economic, and spiritual. As human beings, we pay an inordinately high price for abrogating our responsibility as consumers to set our standards high and reward those entrepreneurs that can best fulfill our pursuit of our own life-affirming values. Walt refused to tolerate employees and vendors who couldn’t live up to his expectations and standards. Often these were standards of capability and integrity rather than results, as Walt was often willing to work with others through the discovery process of innovation, even when that entailed significant failures or rework along the way.

Walt’s work with Arrow Development in creating and building unique custom-made attractions for Disneyland is an example of how he worked with others to achieve optimal results.

Arrow Development was a small machine shop located near San Francisco, owned by Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon, which came to Disney’s attention when WED was seeking attraction manufacturers. Amongst other things, Arrow built playground apparatus and some amusement devices. Robert R. Reynolds, author of Roller Coasters, Flumes, and Flying Saucers: The Story of Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon, writes,

Disneyland would be the catalyst in the transition of Arrow Development from a machine shop that, while an amusement supplier, was still multitasked and willing to take on any work in order to survive, to a full-fledged ride manufacturer. It would also begin a relationship between Arrow and Disney that would last for twenty years. During that period, Arrow Development would be responsible for building almost every ride system to enter Disneyland, and later, Walt Disney World.

The amount of work given to Arrow at the beginning of Disneyland’s construction must have been daunting for a small shop. In addition to the Mr. Toad vehicles and track, they were also responsible for the Tea Cup ride, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, King Arthur Carrousel, Casey Jr., and Snow White.

Walt found in the proprietors of Arrow Development two like-minded entrepreneurs who were committed to innovation, flexibility, and top quality, and capable of applying themselves and their organization to overcoming design and engineering obstacles standing between Walt and his dreams. Whatever the challenge and last-minute changes, of which there were many in the development of innovative custom-built attractions, Arrow was able to deliver. Walt recognized the contribution of Arrow Development in the success of Disneyland, and wanted to make sure that the business remained viable to ensure their contribution to Walt’s future plans. Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon explained their situation.

Karl: We had a fixed bid on all the Fantasyland rides. We lost money on every one we did. Walt Disney said after it was all over, “How did you guys come out on the rides?” I told him that we lost money. He said, “I don’t want you to lose any money on my work, I’ll cover your costs.” And he did.

Ed: He also said, “We couldn’t have done it without you boys. What else can I do for you?” We said, “Nothing, it’s just been a pleasure to work with you.” But we could have probably received a concession such as hats or popcorn. They also gave stock at that time because they were broke. We should have taken stock instead of being paid.

When it came to Disneyland, it wasn’t just vendors that had to achieve high standards. Walt had the foresight and audacity to raise the bar on customers themselves. Walt’s optimism about the inherent goodwill of people and an understanding of their deeper latent values gave him the courage to create a park that demanded their active participation in his vision to ensure its success.

Consider that few people believed Walt would be able to keep his park clean. Conventional thinking was that people naturally litter, and there’s nothing to be done about it except to clean up their mess. Walt didn’t believe it. When Walt told his wife he wanted to build an amusement park, her first reaction was that amusement parks were dirty and didn’t make money. Walt allegedly replied, “That’s the whole point. I want a clean one that will.”

During a press tour of the park led by Walt one week after it opened, a reporter predicted that Disneyland staff would never be able to keep the park clean and that it would soon be covered in litter, to which Walt replied that it would stay clean because “people are going to be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground.”

In time, Walt’s commitment to cleanliness was shared by his guests, and redefined the standard of expectations elsewhere. People went home to ask the question in their own communities and places of patronage: if Disney can do it, why can’t we/you? With downtowns decaying across America, and a lack of funding to repair crumbling infrastructure in the 1960s, city planners looked to what Walt had created for inspiration on how to develop cleaner, more functional, and safer downtown districts. Urban planner Sam Gennawey notes, “In many ways, Disneyland helped to save ‘downtown’ from the wrecking ball and established a higher value for preservation and rehabilitation.”

Architect of the Ford Magic Skyway exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, Welton Becker, recalled the intense interest that Walt had, not only for what Disney was providing to the exhibit, but also for the surroundings that influenced the total experience of the visitors to the fair. Beckett noted that Walt was concerned people in line wouldn’t have something to look at to keep their minds occupied. And he was concerned about the design of the washrooms. “I’ve never seen a great executive get down and take his coat off and really direct and work as he did on those exhibits,” noted Beckett of Walt’s enthusiasm and concern for the quality of the total guest experience.

Executive-level concern for identifying and removing what Walt referred to as “contradictions”—which may be intangible to others and unarticulated by customers—and for enticing customers to contribute to the overall experience is a necessary though not sufficient condition for delivering an experience to customers that exceeds their common experience and perhaps even their expectations.

© 2024, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. 

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed and best-selling book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success. He is a senior-level strategic advisor and enabler, writer, researcher, and photographer. His thought-leadership and research has been published by Rotman Magazine and Ivey Business Journal []. He blogs on strategic business issues at His current interests pertain to the application of new knowledge and skills to master value-creation under current and emerging conditions of increasing socio-technical complexity.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.