If you are a salesperson or a business owner, you have your eyes on your customer every day. You understand very well that customers are the only ones who pay you and you look for ways to engage them. Some of those ways involve discounts and payment terms, quality, cost, delivery, etc.
The rest of your organization isn’t so close to the customer. They answer to managers, supervisors, directors, and internal goals set by senior management with the idea that achieving those goals will serve the customer and a well-served customer will buy more. There’s a problem there.
To be truly effective, all employees at all levels should be focused on the needs of the customer, not their bosses, supervisors, department heads, quarterly results or internal metrics. Again, the customer is the one with the money. Everyone should be working for the customer.
Modern corporations, large and small, focus on creating hierachical business functions to manage the challenges of running the business. These challenges have to be met for sure, but your customer doesn’t care about them very much. To meet these challenges and at the same time provide unparalleled customer service, we need to shift perspective from simply satisfying internal performance metrics to satisfying the Quality, Cost, and Delivery requirements of the customer. Virtually everything we think of as a “Lean tool” is designed to do just that. Some examples:
- Value Stream mapping – this maps out value-creating activities and points to the customer
- Kaizen – this removes waste involved in what we do, but that our customer doesn’t pay for
- Flow – this reduces the time it takes to supply our customer (flow)
- Pull – this is a direct connection between work and the customer
- Production Levelling (heijunka) – this supplies variety to customers at the rate they need it – it adjusts the company to customer demand
- 5S – this let’s us creating the value needed by the customer without distraction
- SMED (setup time reduction) – This allows us to quickly adjust to the cusomers needs (demand)
- Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment) – all company policy is framed from the perspective of supplying the customer’s needs
There are other ways to ensure the customer is served. The most common is to build inventory so when the customer orders, the product is available. There’s a problem with inventory, though. Actually there are many problems, but specific to customer service, inventory “hides” the customer from your people. It hides the customer physically, behind racks and pallets, and psychologically behind a wall of time. It removes the sense that work is urgent or even important.
Lean provides something lacking in most businesses and its the secret to making it work: Common Purpose. If employees frame their jobs in terms of assigned work or functional performance, their purpose does not include the end-customer. They’re working for the wrong people. If, on the other hand, the purpose of every employee is the same as that of the company as a whole, every effort can be aligned to the customer. A good definition of a company’s purpose is:
“The ever increasingly smooth and efficient flow of value from door to door and beyond to the customer”
Not everyone sees a business’s purpose that way, but Lean work seeks to align the work of every individual to that common purpose. Value in Lean is defined from the perspective of the customer and everything we do is in the service of providing that value.
You can find out how well your people are aligned to the needs of your customers just by asking some questions about what they’re working on. Ask “Who is your work for?”, “When will your work find its way out the door?”, “Who are this company’s customers?”, “Why are you doing this?” You’ll get all range of answers to these questions, but some of the most troubling are “I don’t know” and “I’m just doing what I was told.”
When you start to get answers that include specifics about who your customers, what they need, when they need it, and why the job is important to them, you’ll know you’re on the right track. You should be able to get these good answers from the entry-level line worker to the CEO. You’ll find that results are far improved when the goal of everyone is “customer service”.
After all, the customer’s always right. The best way to know what the customer needs is to make sure your entire organization can make “eye contact” with him.