John Dunlap Interview

When you meet John Dunlap, director at the San Diego Zoo, it is clear he is a very organized thinker and action-oriented guy. Zoo staff members say that on any given day you can find John out front at the Zoo, meeting people, engaging with visitors and demonstrating the experience he works so hard to deliver.

John-DunlapA few months ago, I had the pleasure to sit down with John to interview him for my book, ROAR: Strengthening business performance through speed, predictability, flexibility, and leverage. What I learned about John, as well as the performance chain and customer experience the Zoo delivers, was so inspiring. Following is a short excerpt of that interview, and I really encourage you to check out the full story by picking up or downloading a copy of ROAR

In the meantime, let’s hear how John, and the San Diego Zoo, handle the seemingly Herculean challenges a performance chain filled with different stakeholders—and different species!—throws at him each day.

What brought you to the San Diego Zoo? 

“I joined the Zoo in 2008. Prior to the Zoo, my career was in hospitality with the Starwood Hotel and Resorts where I developed a commitment to both quality (John is a Six Sigma Black Belt) and customer experience. Following a recruiter call, I made an initial visit and with my wife’s help, began to assess the experience. I could clearly see a world-class focus on animals. I also saw very clear opportunities for quality and experience improvements on the visitor side.  

“What I realized was that this incredible organization with its global brand created a singular opportunity to have a unique impact in the world. I collected a binder full of research and background that would form the basis of my initial playbook when I entered as the Zoo’s director.”

How have you translated your operations and Six Sigma background from your previous hospitality industry experiences to the needs of the Zoo? 

“I hired 2 people since I came to the Zoo to focus on process improvement: one to enhance revenue opportunities, the other for expense-side opportunities. The Zoo has also been building Lean and Six Sigma capabilities.

“While the Zoo is very innovative on the animal side, they were not used to a lot of change otherwise. As I began to introduce the concepts and employees could see how positively the guests reacted, literally witnessing the validation, enthusiasm has built. 

“Within 60 days of starting I personally worked in every area of the Zoo – learning the organization and exactly what work happens across the entire performance chain. From that experience and through our employee teams, we began to build the visitor experience to match the world-class animal experience.”

How have the needs and performance requirements evolved since you arrived? 

“We have tackled most of the early obvious list. Now we are developing and working on the next level of performance and experience improvement. Our first job was alignment of changes and basic facilities upgrades: paint, fixing anything that was broken, paving the parking lot, new way-finding – the Zoo is on its third map based on both guest and employee input. We now have the base from which to build a world-class experience. 2016 is the 100-year anniversary of the Zoo. We are using this as an opportunity to raise capital for more improvements. One simple example – we are replacing temporary stages with permanent structures that can be used year-round.

I know you can relate to how the four lenses of speed, predictability, flexibility, and leverage play a role in the way the Zoo operates. But, can you talk more about how the “speed” lens impacts your work? 

“Perfection is the enemy of done. We need to move fast. But it is easy to get caught in over-analyzing decisions. Or letting an assumption of what is ‘right’ slow a process down.

“For example, our tour buses were in great need of repair and replacement. They were old, the paint was dull, seats were torn, and they run on gasoline. The assumption was that we needed to upgrade to electric buses – and we had been studying the options, literally for decades. The reality is that we could buy and replace ONE bus for $1 million, or we could spend $100,000 per bus to upgrade our current fleet.

“I just put the question to our team: what kind of conservation are we deciding on? In fact it turns out it was ‘greener’ to reuse our gasoline buses than to purchase new electric ones. We now have most of our buses converted and all will be done by March of 2013. Ten for the price of one. They are colorful, comfortable, cool – the kids love them, and more energy efficient. Everybody benefits. This is a Lean approach: How do you stretch your capital for most advantage and do it as quickly as possible?

What role does flexibility play in your performance chain?

“Flexibility is what extends the strategic view. You can’t anticipate everything you will run into so you need the people, process and skills to adapt when the unexpected happens. Probably our most visible recent example: We had a fire at 2 a.m., I’m standing watching one of our highest revenue retail outlets (our panda store) burn to the ground. Within 24 hours from the fire, after the fire department released the site to us, we had the remains of the burned building completely gone and a base for a new temporary store established. The timeline was:

  • Monday: Fire
  • Tuesday: Removal
  • Wednesday: Reconstruct temporary store
  • Friday:  Restocked and open for business
“Our employees have to squeegee water out of the facility when it rains and everything is on carts so it has to be assembled every day. But they don’t mind. They understand that this is an important part of the Zoo. They are making the store work and our revenue from this location is back up to nearly where it was.
“You can’t make these flexible kinds of actions happen if you don’t have the culture in place, the relationships in place, to make things happen immediately when a crisis or opportunity occurs.  These characteristics have to be built into your performance chain long before any event.”

Wrapping up, what is a favorite Zoo story of yours that you’d like to share with readers?

“We are tested with unpredictable challenges every day. And we take them on: bringing the California Condors back from the brink of extinction – we were down to less than two dozen, now we’re up to 394 (as of October 30, 2011) and growing – people said it couldn’t be done.”