Lean Leadership Ways
Karyn Ross

Karyn Ross

Improve People First

Over the past five years, in almost every service organization I’ve worked with, I’ve heard the following complaint, or a version of it. Perhaps you’ve heard it in your service organization too:

“We’d like to improve, but until they fix the bugs in our computer systems, or we get the new system they’ve been promising us for years, there’s just not much we can do.”

And no matter how many times I hear there’s no way to improve service to customers without improving systems, I’m always surprised. It is true that service processes do often rely heavily on computer systems; however, those systems don’t operate themselves. Our team members operate them: Our team members use those systems to produce the services that customers need, such as payroll checks and reports, insurance policies, and banking and financial transactions. And it is our team members who use those systems to help answer customer questions and handle customer complaints. In service organizations, systems don’t produce the required services or satisfy customers—people do.

So if we want to improve our services, the place to start is not with our computer systems, but with improving the people who operate those systems to produce the services that our customers want: our front-line, customer-facing team members. And how do we do that in a service organization? The same way that we do it in a manufacturing organization. By teaching our team members to identify and solve problems in their work processes using the PDCA cycle: Plan-Do-Check-Act, the scientific method of solving a problem.

Take, for example, a team member whose job it is to answer incoming calls in a customer service center. That team member hears the voice of the customer loud and clear every day. And often-times, the voice of the customer is an angry voice, letting the team member know of a problem in the process: an incorrect amount on a payroll check, an ordered item that did not arrive at the specified time, or a difficulty accessing an online system to check a bank balance. Consider the following possibilities:

  1. The team member uses the system to record and help fix the problem and moves on to the next call.
  2. The team member uses the system to record and help fix the problem and recognizes that there is a process improvement opportunity in the customer’s complaint. They then raise the issue to their manager who has the skills and motivation to work with them to find the root cause so that countermeasures can be put in place to prevent the problem from happening again to other customers.
  3. Going one step even further, the problem is then recorded on a board organized by types of problems where the team meets daily to discuss how to solve the most important problems for customer satisfaction. Countermeasures could even include creating a task force to work with the IT department to improve the computer system.

In my experience, team members who have no “human system” available for highlighting problems and systematically solving them feel isolated and unable to solve problems and will choose the first alternative. The only system they know is the computer system, which is controlled by someone they never met in a place they probably have never been. Team members with managers who want to understand the problems so that they can help solve them, and care about improving their team members problem-solving abilities using PDCA, are more likely to at least raise the problem by telling someone. Team members working in an organization with a “human system” established for continuous improvement will naturally voice their customer problems in an established forum for doing that. And moreover, as the customer-facing organization brings problems to the IT group , the IT group may start to become more customer focused, and make the computer system more “human system” friendly.

Problems in customer service computer systems are always going to exist. When we replace our current system with a new system, we are simply going to get a whole new set of problems for our team members and our customers. And if we wait for someone else to develop and give us these new systems to begin improving our processes to satisfy our customers, we lose both the opportunity to develop our team members’ problem identification and solving skills and we risk losing our customers to other service organizations who aren’t relying on systems to improve their service, but are developing their team members through PDCA.

When we teach our team members to identify and solve problems, not only do we develop their abilities, but we also give our organization the competitive edge needed to satisfy and create loyal customers, no matter what computer systems we use. And when we stop focusing on what our systems can’t do, and start focusing on what our team members can do, we will realize that there’s no need to wait for someone else to give us new systems to start improving. We can always start working to develop our team members right now.

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