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Look Around You, Find Your Lean Inspiration

by Roberto Priolo
February 10, 2015

Look Around You, Find Your Lean Inspiration

by Roberto Priolo
February 10, 2015 | Comments (0)

Stories of poor customer service and performance regularly fill newspaper pages (and social media feeds). No matter how hackneyed, however, I think they are always worth telling. Not only because from reflection comes knowledge, but also because as a customer I should not have to resort to Twitter trashing to get an online travel agency to authorize a refund for a plane ticket I’m entitled to! (Last year, a death in the family forced me to cancel a trip to Greece).

But let’s stay with this customer service story for a minute. My six-month predicament to get my money back included countless phone calls, several emails, and three different requests from the travel agency to submit the same documentation. Along the way, I observed a consistent lack of interest and competence in the people I dealt with, and a complete lack of communication among the organization’s departments. As frustrated as I got, however, I could not help but feel for those customer care operators. I know how miserable their working days can be.

If my angry emails were any indication, operators often act like a punching bag for customers who are really furious about a company policy and about a problem that results from the system the company implements (or doesn’t), rather than at the people who are forced to work in that system.

Last month, Michael Ballé published a great article on Planet Lean on traditional management versus what he calls “lead-with-respect management.” It highlighted the practices and thinking of an organization that bases its management style on the respect for people principle of lean thinking. As I read his article, I couldn’t help but think of the call center operators: I wondered how respected they could feel in an environment that clearly failed them in the worst possible way - preventing them from doing a good job, forcing them to follow a script instead of developing their skills, and encouraging them to highlight problems. The people I spoke with sounded disengaged and panicked when my questions required a non-scripted answer. They showed no empathy and simply just did not know what to do. 

Clearly, there is a huge flaw in the customer care function of the organization, and probably no system to capture failure, reflect on it, and act. In their latest column for Planet Lean, LEI Poland’s Malgorzata Jakubik and Robert Kagan reminded us of how quality problems can be used as the driver to support a lean transformation. “Build a clear problem escalation process so that people can rely on a well-defined communication standard and are not afraid to flag up a problem,” they wrote. It feels to me like the travel agency I used wasn’t worrying at all about flagging up and looking into problems. Although I must say the escalation process worked well when I started tweeting about my ordeal.

All too often, organizations get caught up in bureaucracy and preconceived structures. During one of my calls to the travel agency, for example, I managed to make enough noise and was put through to a manager. I thought this would help me (after all, a manager is someone with “some real power”), but it didn’t.

The problem is that there should be no need for a manager to get involved, because the operator should be enabled to process a request as simple as mine with no help. To avoid the problems that come with traditional hierarchy, successful organizations like Spotify have a system of “servant leadership” in place, where the reporting structure is sideways and where people are enabled to make decisions and solve problems by themselves. 

I’m also reminded of an interview at least year’s Lean IT Summit, in which Mary Poppendieck shared insight into how an organization can learn from problems. She calls it “commitment to resilience.” When something goes wrong, a successful organization focuses on recovering and learning from mistakes.

There are many examples out there showing us that another way to deliver customer value is possible, and that mediocre service is no longer an option. We just need to let those companies inspire us, using lean to get the tools and confidence we need to take those lessons and apply them to our own scenarios.

If embraced fully, lean can transform even the most seemingly hopeless of organizations, and analysing and addressing customer complaints can be the first step towards change. It means we are recognizing there is a problem.

It might be a while before some of the organizations we buy products and services from change their ways, but for us customers there is some comfort in knowing that at the very least public shaming on Twitter can be very effective.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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