Improve Your Organization’s Workflow & Satisfy Paying Customers

At a time when American business should be rallying around itself to manage quality, speed and complexity in order to overcome the challenges of our economy (mortgage meltdown, cost of oil and food, and sagging consumer confidence), the service dimension of business appears to be reticent to improve. It’s not unlike getting a poor performance appraisal from one’s boss and making a decision NOT to improve measurably. Our economy is giving us low scores and we need to look deep inside for the motivation to behave differently. Sub-standard services can no longer be tolerated at a time when each and every customer, each and every sale and each and every order represent the difference between life and death for business interests.

What to do?

Lean and Six Sigma, integrated properly and applied with a sense of urgency can go a long way to reduce waste, improve quality and reduce complexity – all of which recognize the importance of service and satisfied customer needs. This is true in manufacturing as well as in all areas related to service. Even the manufacturing sector has many service related areas that can stand to improve. Human resources, finance, marketing and sales, customer service, support, research and development, and IT to name a few.

  • To the degree that speed, quality and complexity are not defined, measured, analyzed, improved and controlled, opportunities for quality improvement are lost.
  • To the degree that transitions, events, triggers, decisions and rules are not modified to improve efficiency and eliminate waste as defined by the critical needs of the customer, opportunities for savings are lost.
  • To the degree that quality and efficiency improvements do not reduce complexity, opportunities for value-creation are lost.

Who’s in Charge Here?

How is that we can shop retail outlets, visit eateries, seek healthcare, and ask for customer support and not receive service that is of the highest quality, efficiency and simplicity in this day and age? I often ask myself: “Where is this person’s manager?” and “How does this enterprise hope to survive an economic downturn and global competition?”

Lean and Clean – A Strategic Priority

I think the answer is one of strategic priority at the level of leadership. Workflow and business process projects are too often not directly tied to enterprise strategy. Consequently, there is a belief that improvement in service – be it marketing, sales, customer support or human resources – are not deemed to have an immediate impact on ROI and NPV by virtue of the delay most leaders believe is involved in manifesting improvements.

Act Now

Such is the case when organizational bureaucracy and a lack of expertise conspire to produce improvement initiatives with 12 and 18 month time lines. American business is pressed to identify opportunities for improvement in speed, quality and simplicity in short time frames. Transform and defrag now.

Circles of Excellence with the Mind-Set (Sense of Urgency) of a SWAT Team

The remedy is essential and absolutely urgent: enable staff and managers to quickly identify waste, poor quality (as defined by the customer) and unwarranted complexity. Bring the expertise inside the walls of your organization if you have to. Give people simple tools. Dedicate your attention to velocity, quality control, simplification. With the right kind of visibility (workflow and business process models as well as key performance indicators in service dimensions of your business), issues are relatively easy to spot and the solutions are self-evident. The red flags are all around us and the solutions are just as evident.

Zero Tolerance

Lastly, what is most ironic, poor customer service, needs to become intolerable. When customers and their disposable income are scarce, every service sector organization should declare a “zero tolerance” policy with respect to lousy customer engagement. Anything short of gold-standard service should be met with immediate performance improvement plans. Surviving and thriving in a recession is a matter of leadership, decision-making and focus on what really matters. Now more than ever, speed, quality, simplicity and satisfied customers matter.


3 responses to “Improve Your Organization’s Workflow & Satisfy Paying Customers

  1. Economists describe monopolistic competition as a type of competition in which many producers offer products that are different in small but important ways from each other. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that improved service is enough of a value innovation to allow a firm compete in a monopolistic competition marketplace, but I don’t really know.

    Nari Kannan at the BPM Enterprise blog describes value innovation as a means to gain market share. This connects to what you’re writing here, particularly with regard to the global competition of American companies. You can see value innovations in lower-cost outsourcing. However, since value innovation can occur in a number of ways (for example, quality of service), it offers a means for American firms to compete with the value innovations available overseas. But is that means effective?

    Reducing operating costs and improving the reliability of performance are two likely outcomes of lean six sigma applies to service. I wonder whether lean six sigma can enhance the creative process that lets firms participate in a monopolistically competitive market. The answer is probably “yes” if the market is for a service, but how about when the service is an optional part of a product offering (for example, support for software)?

    How many people turn away from a company because of poor customer service, as opposed to poor products (for which service is supplied)? Patrick, what factors decide whether an individual or company chooses a product? You obviously think that service is important to competitiveness, and that lean six sigma can improve competitiveness, but how important?

  2. Patrick Gauthier

    Hi Noah. You raise some interesting questions. The question regarding peoples’ buying habits or decision-making is most interesting. Without doing some market research, I can’t give you exact answers but I can share my opinions.

    I believe that people buy products and services (both) based on their perceived needs (or impulse), and the features and benefits of what they are buying. In the mix, however, is brand image and reputation. Word of mouth and testimonials are big drivers. Once, as a consumer, I have become aware of my own need for something, I begin to look for it (shop) or it might show up in the mail as a brochure and elicit the need in me. The company that wants my business has to then make some logical and emotional appeals. The features of their product resonate logically while the benefits resonate emotionally. Their brand has to stick out in my mind as I hit the mall or the internet to shop.

    In this day and age, in a “flat world global marketplace”, product features and benefits are fairly easy to replicate. Rip-offs and also-rans are everywhere. There is little product differentiation anymore so companies that want a competitive edge need to look to what else they can offer. The “what else” that appears to make the biggest difference is Service. Some will argue it’s design or aesthetics. However, I believe failure to provide excellent customer service will drive shoppers and customers to the competition (whether that competition is local or global).

    There is ample evidence in the work of Jim Collins (author of Built to Last and Good to Great) and others that making superior service a core organizational competency – even weaving it into a company’s ideology and mission – and then really delivering on that promise makes a very real difference in customer preference and loyalty. Subsequently, it makes an enormous difference to inclusion of the “voice of the customer” in product development and the bottom-line (profits). When you look at the leaders in any market segment, service is central to their delivery. There are no market leaders who can get away with sub-standard service. Of course, “service” is relative and has many dimensions but that’s another story.

    In short, I think service is a key differentiator. We simply cannot take it for granted that people buy on product features alone. Particularly not in this economy. If a foreign competitor offers the same product features at a lower price and provides better customer service, I’d be in trouble trying to compete with them.

    This position is not about shrinking away from global competition and foreign entrants into the market. I am not about to encourage a “Made in the USA”-only mentality. What I am saying is that it is absolutely crucial for ANY business to apply rigor in its customer service if it wants to thrive. I am stunned when I see service neglected and ignored.

  3. Thanks for the reply, Patrick. I’ve really learned something here. So you distinguish products from services, say that competitiveness requires excellence in both, and that you’re a globalist.

    OK, well, I’m for American companies increasing their exports, particularly to keep American profits cycling through the American economy, but I might look up Jim Collins, to find out more about how foreign service compares to American service. Actually, foreign companies that run service organizations within the states are still running the organization differently than an American company might – important for me to keep in mind.

    Thanks again,


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