Micro-Innovation by Erica, a Flight Attendant at American Airlines

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to Erica Bird (maybe Erika Byrd: pictured below), a flight attendant on this morning’s American Airlines flight AA3611.

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From the get go she was very considerate.
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I have a backpack that turned out to be ever so slightly big for the overhead cabin. Putting it under my seat meant I would be squeezed. I wondered if I should go back to gate check it. The first thing she asked was whether I had a connecting flight. She showed consideration for my time constraints! (It can take a while to retrieve gate checked bags) Most would have just told me to go ahead and gate check it. I would have been fine with that, but the fact that she showed consideration was meaningful to me.

She then asked me to hold on to my bag for a bit. I soon realized that she was considering the possibility that I may be able to stow it under the seat next to me in case nobody showed up. I did eventually luck out because nobody sat next to me! The co-creation that happened between her and I was very valuable to me. What a beautiful example of a micro-innovation!
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What blew me away the most was when she later came by with her cart to give out snacks and beverages. She said “Hello Mr. Lim.” I was taken aback for a second. I’ve never had a flight attendant greet me by my name on a coach flight (par for the course when I fly business, yes.) It turns out she learns every passenger’s last name beforehand! I don’t know if I just haven’t flown American in a long time or if Erica is unique. Regardless, I appreciated her efforts so much.
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In my mind, it’s these small things one does to show respect and consideration for another human being in a business context that sets apart one employee or a brand from another. I do not wish to take them for granted.
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I hope Erica gets the recognition she deserves.
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Thank you, Erica!

UPDATE: Thank you American Airlines!

For What Do We Want to be Appreciated?

Each day,
write down one thing
your co-founder (or spouse) did—
that day or long ago—
you genuinely appreciated.
if it’s embarrassing to admit.)

On Christmas day,

  1. Agree to not negate
    or trivialize anything spoken.
  2. Share the list.
  3. Let them ask
    “How significant is this one
    and why?”

Human beings
have a need
to feel appreciated
for what they
want to feel appreciated
in the way they
want to be appreciated.

And yet,
too many times,
we appreciate them
for what we
appreciate about them
in the way we
like to show appreciation.

This can leave
our co-founders,
employees, or spouse
feeling unfulfilled,
or betrayed
in their relationship
with us.

So end by asking,
“What one thing
do you wish I’d appreciate
about what you do
and how
do you want me
to show it?”

To be a Better Designer, Attend to Your Pain

We experience tension
when there’s a conflict
between what we expect or need
VS what we have

Design begins
when we take responsibility
for clarifying,
and addressing
our tension.

Say we expect computers
to be more usable.
We begin to design
the moment we take responsibility
for clarifying,
and addressing
this tension.

We don’t always design, though.

we push responsibility

We blame.

This is normal.

Especially when tension
accompanies pain.

If we wish to design
may we attend to our pain

Before it becomes
an untreated wound.

A wound that can be irritated
leaving us
with such a low threshold
for tension
that we end up spending
too much of our time blaming
instead of designing.

A Blindspot of User-Centricity

There was a time in my life, when I had a hyper-focus on user-centricity.

I met with users in person. I spent hours listening to their concerns. I genuinely felt for them.

When I returned to the office to transcribe every word they had said, it all came rushing back to me. I remembered some of them tearing up with gratitude simply because I was willing to listen. Empathizing with these users… That was probably one of the most fulfilling part of my job.

But then… Upper management entered the scene, and messed things up. They would come up with all sorts of excuses to either cancel the product we were designing for these users or kill the feature that these users most needed!

“How dare they?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “Can’t they see how much goodness this project could bring to the world? How evil and greedy do they have to be to do such horrible things?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘upper-management.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of bringing about a better world.


I never solved the problem.

I eventually ended up leaving the world of design, thinking to myself “There’s got to be a better model of innovation.”

This question lead me to research how artists innovate differently from designers.

One day, during the course of this research, I found myself in a woodshop. I had come into the shop with a beautiful vision of a chair I wanted to build.

My vision of the chair was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also highly ergonomic and comfortable for the potential user of the chair. I could not wait to finish it!

But then… The wood started to mess up my vision. It resisted, no, refused to bend in the exact way I wanted it to bend so I can make it feel comfortable for people to sit on it!

“What a piece of crap?!” I proclaimed with great indignation. “What good is a material if it can’t bring value to its users?”

I was furious.

So furious that I was determined to solve this problem called ‘wood.’ It was clear to me that it was the thing getting in the way of realizing my vision of a better chair.


I never solved the problem.

But this time, I did not leave wood behind in search of a “better” material. I thanked it for teaching me a valuable lesson.

What the wood had taught me was that I had a tendency to think of anything or anyone who got in the way of achieving my goal as a “problem.” This realization forced me to take a good look at all my relationships. Sure enough, I was treating my parents as problems. I was treating my friends as problems. I was even treating myself as a problem from time to time. The pattern was everywhere.

Users are important. Yes, they are.

At the same time, they are a part of a larger whole. There are many kinds of people involved in what we call the “design process.” Unless we think of all of them as human beings with equal dignity, it becomes exceedingly easy to treat any one of them as mere problems to be solved. This is a natural blindspot that develops when we hyper-focus on a single group of individuals.

Please don’t get me wrong… Doing this is easier said than done. It takes great energy, not to mention skills to do it. Skills that fall under the umbrella of realizing empathy.

In fact, even after having learned my lesson, I still notice myself treating people as problems to be solved.

So what I now do is pause to ask myself this question. “What is it that I’m having difficulty appreciating about the other person that makes it so easy for me to resort to treating them as mere problems to be solved?”

I have a feeling I’ll do this until the day I die.


• • •


Photo credit to Seattle Roamer


Micro-Innovation by a cashier at Five Guys

I wanted to write this in appreciation and celebration of a customer service agent (the young lady pictured below) I met this past Saturday.


Saturday was a tough day for me.

Earlier in the week, I had facilitated a meeting. The meeting was part of an ongoing effort to restore trust between two cultures inside an international organization.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well.

If you’re on a similar journey as I, you know how disheartening it can feel when we struggle to facilitate greater empathy among people.

Sometimes we shake it off and move on. Other times, feelings of discouragement and disappointment pierce us with such blunt sharpness that we spiral into a vicious cycle of rumination. The kind that compels us to ask a simple yet deadly question: “Am I good enough to have a positive impact in the world? Is all this effort worth it?”

Having been at it for almost 5 years now, I thought I had become tough enough. I thought nothing could bring me down any more. Yet here I was, doubting my ability and the fundamental worth of my journey.

And then… I met this lady.

I had visited this Five Guys in Seekonk, MA several times. Yet, I had never met someone who greeted me quite the way she did. In particular, she had a certain way of saying “Al-right.” Every time she’d say it, I’d feel so much sincere enthusiasm in her words that I felt compelled to repeat after her.

In fact, I did! (Just once, though. I didn’t want her to misinterpret my behavior as having the intention of making fun of her.) Her energy was so contagious!

The vibe with which she greeted me to the restaurant shook me and woke me up. The resonating effect was so strong that I got out of my context and synchronized with her’s. In that new context, I immediately realized the unencessity with which I was ruminating. And just like that, I was back up and ready to take another step in this journey of realizing empathy.

Standing in the dining area, I felt a slow and steady rise of gratitude take over me. This is not the first time I have experienced this kind of slow rise of gratitude. It’s always a bit surreal when I do. The underlying energy is somewhat overwhelming. It compels you to express your appreciation and acknowledgement. This can be vulnerable. It’s not the kind that can be fully expressed by a meter utterance of “thank you.” It’s not always clear how we can express it.

On my way out, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I took a picture of her. She was gracious enough to give me permission. I told her I thought she was enthusiastic then quickly left, still feeling vulnerable. On my way back, I continued to experience the rush of gratitude.

It was beautiful.


It is beautiful. Because I still feel it.

Thank you for your energy dear customer service agent. What you may have done without much thought meant the world to me. It was a wonderful example of a micro-innovation. Thanks to you I have found the energy to get back into the ring. To continue on this journey.

Thank you. Thank you so much.

May you stay beautiful.

with warmth and gratitude,

Seung Chan Lim

Micro-Innovation by Gailshen at Verizon

On Dec. 3rd of last week, I called Verizon Wireless Customer Service for a quick phone swap. The customer rep said “How are you?” I said “I’m good, how are you?” and the rep said “I’m doing well. By the way, thanks for asking that.” I laughed at the unexpected response.

After the phone swap, she asked “Is there any other question or concern?” I asked “Do people normally not ask you how you are?” and she answered “Some do, and some don’t. Most don’t, so I feel it’s significant enough to acknowledge those considerate enough to ask.” I said “Thank you for acknowledging.” and she went “Oh, no problem. That’s just how I am. I think people should be acknowledged.” After exchanging good byes, I hung up, inspired.

What I realized in that moment was that we often forget that those behind customer service lines are dignified human beings worthy of our respect and consideration. To be clear, this isn’t because we are malicious or mean. It’s because we’re flooded with emotion when we call them or we’re focused so narrowly on achieving a goal that we perceive the customer reps as a means to our end.

Having transitioned from being a designer to a meta-designer, I’m reminded once again that focusing on user experience is not enough. The user is not whom we serve. What we serve is the relationship. And relationships are made of a continuous and dynamic give and take of conversation, which can only be given life if we are awake enough in each and every moment to at least notice whether we are respecting or not, whether we are considering or not. That is what the design practice asks of us. How we respond to that ask, of course, is up to us.

Easier said than done, isn’t it?

Thank you Gailshen A. Thanks to your appreciation and acknowledgement, I was given the opportunity to pause and reflect. That is so much more than what I expected to get out of a phone swap. It was a beautiful experience. It was a display of genuine leadership. It was a wonderful example of a micro-innovation.

May you stay beautiful,

Seung Chan Lim
photo credit: Phil Dowsing Creative

Micro-Innovation by Melissa at US Airways

Yesterday, I was at the Ithaca airport on my way back from a day trip working with the executive MBA students at Cornell. As soon as I got to the airport, I tried to check myself in at the Kiosk. For some odd reason, the kiosk wasn’t able to find my reservation. So this lady (pictured) at US Airways helped look my reservation up manually.


And now get this.

After looking up my reservation, she said:

“Ha… I see that you’re taking a stop at Philly, then another one at Charlotte before getting into Providence. Would you like to take a direct flight to Providence from Philly instead? That’ll shave you a few hours.”

And I was like. “Uh… Sure?”

At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. In my head, I’m thinking “Am I getting charged extra for this or what?” But, no. Through the magic of her typing she just made it happen.

After receiving the new flight assignment, I felt that something was off, but I wasn’t sure what. I walked through security, and sat down to process my emotion. After several minutes, I slowly came to the realization that what I was experiencing was an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Several minutes had already passed since I had uttered two reactionary words, “thank you,” to this lady. It felt awkward to go back and bring it up again. I tried to distract myself for a few minutes, but the feeling wouldn’t subside. So I finally decided I had to do something. I stood up, walked up to her, and told her that I would really like to mark this event as a special moment. I asked if we could take a picture together. She seemed surprised, and probably thought that I was an odd ball, which I can totally understand. Thankfully she agreed, and we smiled together at the camera before snapping a picture. I thanked her once again.

I don’t know of a time in my recent flight history, where I felt such sense of gratitude in relation to someone behind the ticket counter. Flying back and forth over the course of an overnight trip can be tiring. The last thing you want to do is spend more time in the plane or waiting in the airport. (Especially after experiencing several hours of delay the day before) What she did was not only surprising, but also meaningful and valuable to me. It was a great example of something I would consider a micro innovation. The kind that can only arise from realizing empathy. Thank you once again, dear lady whose name I failed to get. I will not forget the experience you made possible today.

May you stay beautiful,

Seung Chan Lim

UPDATE: I tweeted this story to US Airways, and they promised to let her manager know. They just made my day!


MORE UPDATE: Corporate communications at Piedmont Airlines (operating for US Airways) has contacted me to let me know that Melissa (I now know her name!) and her boss has seen it. Love the internet. Love it.