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If you want to find the secret to success, have lunch in a diner.

As I open the door to the Nautilus, I wonder how often I’ve eaten at a diner over the years. The chrome-clad counters, advertising placemats and scalding coffee are timeless. Sitting at a diner counter is part menu, part experience. Actually, it’s all experience that keeps me coming back.

The Nautilus is a series of smiles. Fast. Hot. Fattening. And like the best diners worldwide, something more:

Service.

On this visit, the service isn’t just great: it’s extraordinary.

Within moments I recognize something special is happening. It’s not just a quick club and hot coffee. It’s a lesson on how to be so good, it commands attention. Even in the boring business of food.

As I sit down, my waitress appears with a carafe. I need only nod. Creamers fly from her apron faster than I can find a spoon. Minutes later I raise my chin from the menu and her voice behind me asks, “What’ll it be?” A regional mix of clipped-chit-chat means get-it-done and that means a perfectly cropped BLT with fries ten minutes later. As the waitress turns away, I ask for extra mayonnaise.

To which she replies:

“It’s already there, on the side. I always put a little extra on the side. The kitchen hates me for it. But I know you’ll ask for it. Why waste time? Enjoy.”

Then she disappears.

In an era where everyone talks about capturing attention and disrupting the competition, the waitress at the Nautilus is instructive. Disruption has become so over-hyped it’s more meaningless than the soup of the day. My waitress, on the other hand, reminded me of a timeless lesson.

Great execution remains the most attention-grabbing, competition-disrupting formula of all.

It’s pretty ironic: What’s disruptive in the modern world isn’t the latest, but the most traditional of strategies: Doing a great job. No need to reverse-engineer the process or introduce an ecosystem of apps and payment systems. Consumer ratings happen real time (they’re called tips) and quality control happens at the register. It’s all so simple, it makes me think that Clayton Christensen must have never eaten in a diner before coining the phrase disruptive innovation in 1990s. For two decades we’ve led ourselves to think that building market share, creating loyalty and generating growth required us to throw everything out and develop whole new value chains.

At the Nautilus, a different disruptive hypothesis has been playing out for decades: Excellent execution keeps the customer coming back and the competition away. The diner doesn’t have an app; I can’t pre-order or pre-pay by smartphone; no iPads at the table. Nonetheless the execution remains flawless. More importantly, my loyalty is unshakable. The Nautilus is surrounded by fifteen other restaurants within two blocks, only one of which I’ve ever bothered to try.

Great service is still the most disruptive strategy, even amongst the “internet of things” today.

Perhaps because great service is increasingly hard to find. Whether we’re hailing a cab, buying home or grabbing coffee, we meet frustration everywhere. Today’s executives too quickly give up on improving  service. Instead they use technology to outsource it – to us. The app-centric vision of disruption makes the customer do all the work. Check yourself in. Order your own food. Find your own home. Don’t even interact when you want to pay your bill: Just tap your phone and be gone.

Which is why diners aren’t just nostalgic, they’re disruptive. They don’t need fancy technology or silver platters to gain market share: They outlast and outshine their competitors by using the special technology for people professionals: Service.

My waitress boiled down competitive strategy into deceptively simple steps:

Watch your customers every day to learn what they want; get it to them just slightly before they ask for it; Do it even if it disrupts your internal processes.

This kind of disruptive strategy can be implemented by everyone. It doesn’t depend upon education, technology or financing. It’s not a matter of online or offline. And it is independent of novelty: A BLT hasn’t changed much over the years, but the frequency of a high quality experience (anywhere) has. While we’re worried about online ratings and mobile search to drive traffic, we must pay equal attention to the execution to create attention-grabbing disruption.

A little extra mayo on the side: It wasn’t even about efficiency. It was about great service with every order.

Walking out of the Nautilus, I think to myself: Disruption really doesn’t have to be difficult. There’s a time and place for the internet or smartphone or digital currency to transform everything. But for most companies and their clients, what’s still significant isn’t just the efficient or convenient or less expensive. Ordinary things must still be made extraordinary, and not by digital alone.

The next time I hear someone announce a “disruptive” challenger, I’m going to think of mayonnaise. I’ll remind myself of the need to always improve and impress, using tools and technology. But I’ll also remember the waitress at the Nautilus: Disruption isn’t the same thing as invention. What it takes to drive success isn’t just the new-school but the best school. Execution often trumps innovation. In fact, it often challenges our beliefs about how the world works.

In fact, I used to think that oil and water wouldn’t mix.

But isn’t that exactly what mayonnaise is?

 

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