Lean & Customer Service

We talk a lot of about Lean here in the office. We talk about the tools and the methods; the strategy and the approach. We’ve seen and heard it all (or so we think!), both positive and negative. When you get right down to it, tough, the desired outcome of any Lean undertaking is basically the same: by practicing Lean, we are trying to get the customer what they want when they want it in the most efficient manner possible. Lean doesn’t exist if there’s not a business to apply it to. Of course this is easier said than done. Moving at the speed of business is hard, and trying to continuously improve at the same time can be difficult, if not impossible. For those who undertake the journey, though, the fruits can be sweet. Some of the most famous Lean transformation stories are the ones about companies who are dangerously close to being bankrupt only to see the error of their ways, employ Lean thinking and save the day, the company, and in some cases, the town. These almost-lost-it-all-but-have-a-happy-ending stories are the stuff of Hollywood, and generally everyone loves them… especially customers.

Supply management is a whole discipline unto itself, so we won’t try to take that on within these 900 words, but from a Lean perspective, having a stable of suppliers who are engaged in helping your business succeed is very important. Just like front-line employees, your suppliers know best what you can do within their four walls to help you be successful. Likewise, once you find a “good one”, you need to hold on to them since they are in such short supply also. Truthfully, the skills gap includes the supply base.

I wish that I could say that the old days of “beat the supplier” were over, but I can’t. It’s just as prevalent today as it was 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. For whatever reason, there are just some customers out there who think pounding their fists and yelling over a speakerphone is the best way to get what they want. One of our clients shared with us a letter they (along with all like-suppliers) got from one of their customers that basically said “we’re cutting your prices by 10%”. Mind you – the letter was delivered the day after Thanksgiving, with the “clean sheet analysis” pricing change going into effect on New Years’ Day. So on top of all of the year-end activities, closing of books, employee vacations and holiday parties, suppliers now had to re-plan portions of their budgets (which had most assuredly been completed for months), or try in vain to re-negotiate with an 800 pound gorilla. That’s not exactly the partnership we Lean practitioners talk about. But hey, they did say they “…look forward to a future of continued growth and success together”, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. I can feel the love.

Customers can be tough, but the good ones help us become better. How we choose to deal with them is up to us. Take United, for example. Dragging a passenger off Flight 3411, giving him a concussion and a broken nose probably isn’t the best public relations move, and it certainly isn’t the right thing to do for the customer. It wasn’t his fault that the airline overbooked the flight, and he certainly wasn’t creating a problem for other passengers that necessitated a removal. All he was doing was sitting in the seat he had paid for. In this case, the process failed, and United needs to take a long, hard look at how such a thing could have happened. The damage done to the brand certainly far exceeds the $900 they’d offered for folks to give up their seats prior to 4 passengers being randomly chosen for removal.

All of this isn’t to say that the customer is always right. In today’s society, we’ve been conditioned to expect that everything will be completed immediately. We tend not to plan ahead as much as we used to, since information is so much more readily available. When I researched my papers in college, I had to go to the library, check out books and scan them for the information I needed. Today, I can just ask Siri (or Alexa, or Google Home), and voila! My answer appears. Unfortunately, sometimes folks don’t understand that the whole world doesn’t work that way, which can be frustrating for customer service professionals. Consider this example: A virtual spectator wanted to know the outcome of an ultra-marathon trail race… while the event was still underway. This particular race included almost 300 runners covering 68 miles and 40,000 ft. of elevation change in some very remote areas, so keeping track of all of the runners and crew and making sure everyone was safe had to be priority one. On top of that, the logistics associated with putting on and running such a race is a daunting task in and of itself, so having a non-paying “customer” take you to task about your lack of a fast response (note the time stamps) can be frustrating. Given the response, I’d say that this race director was just about at wits’ end…

Lean is a way to please the customer by delivering value. Building a Lean organization must include your suppliers and your customers, because engaging with them allows you to deliver best-in-class customer service. Then, truly, the benefits of Lean can be enjoyed by all. And isn’t that why we do all of this?