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Serving Your Customer: Observation and Feedback

Once we understand what customers value, we need to design clear connections to deliver that value.

In Part 1 (Going Beyond Lean Thinking to Define Value) of this column, I challenged how the lean tenet regarding delivering value to our customer has been practiced. I discussed the imperative need to understand your customers' needs without just asking them, and shared that observation is key in this process.

Clearly understanding what the customers value and why they value it helps with waste elimination. There are three wastes that are most prevalent when we don't understand our customer.

The first is often the most hidden: the waste of overprocessing. Overprocessing is doing more than the customer requires or values.

The waste of waiting is often created not by delays but simply by not understanding your customer’s time requirements and reasons. Has someone ever asked you for the status of something, and you either thought or said, "I told you I would get it to you"? This very frequent exchange is based people having different expectations of need when it comes to time.

The third waste is the waste of defects. The obvious defect is when the product does not meet the specification. The more hidden waste of defects is when we fail to understand the customer's requirements. We produce something perfectly, and it doesn't meet their needs. If you clearly understand the customer’s needs, you can avoid these wastes.

Once we understand the value, we need to design clear connections to deliver that value. That is easier for external customers, because there is a natural marketplace transaction that takes place.

For internal customers, this involves designing the process with a clear connection. A clear connection involves a means for making a request and a means to respond. A well-designed connection should be binary, meaning there is only one way to make a request and only one way to respond.

With a clear understanding of the customers' needs and a clearly designed connection, we have completed the plan and the do elements of the Plan Do Check Act cycle. But what about the check? How do we know we are getting the results we want? How do we know we are getting better when we implement improvements?

A common approach is to ask your customer to "let me know if there is a problem." Then we assume that if we haven't heard anything, everything is fine. This doesn't work because, if there is a failure and customer experienced waste, taking the time to go and tell you only compounds that waste.

You need a means to get feedback. There are three means of getting feedback. A metric is perhaps the most common. If you are expected to respond in a given time period, then measure the response time. If you have a more complicated definition of value from the customer, then even something like a regular survey gives you something to evaluate. Your metric must be consistent because you want to understand when something changes.

Finally, and ideally, you will design feedback into the process itself. Can you design the process so that any failure is automatically known or responded to?

One of my favorite examples is that of a safety organization. In a complex and dangerous environment, the safety department had to provide training for operators with the service expectation of keeping people safe. They measured their performance of keeping everyone trained, sent out lists and reminders, and sent out more lists informing everyone of people who were past due. It was tremendous churn without great results.

They then redesigned into their process a binary, unambiguous feedback mechanism that ensured they never had a problem; when an employee’s safety credentials expired, their badge was immediately deactivated until they received the required training. Reminders now carried weight, and no one ever operated with expired credentials again.

Our work needs purpose to be productive. That purpose is most clearly defined by our customers' needs and how we deliver value. We must understand it, design for it, and evaluate it if our work is to be both purposeful and productive.

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