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The Virtue of Small Data

by Steve Bell
July 30, 2013

The Virtue of Small Data

by Steve Bell
July 30, 2013 | Comments (6)

How can you better hear and engage the voice of your customers? As lean practitioners, we all do so by personally going to the source—the Gemba. Today this approach includes the use of virtual Gemba, such as the examination of large volumes of internet Big Data.

But are you utilizing the Small Data your front line workers experience every day?

What do I mean by Small Data? Let me give you an example. Recently I was upgraded to first class (always a nice surprise) and looking forward to a meal. On the menu card I had two choices: pasta and fish. When I ordered the fish, the attendant apologized that they had run out. It occurred to me that since I was sitting only halfway back in first class, then most of the people ahead of me must have chosen the fish.

I asked the attendant if this is what happened. “Yes.” Could he have predicted it? “Yes,” he said, “it happens on every flight.” Interesting. He then told me that only 3 out of 16 people wanted pasta, resulting in 5 unhappy people in first class. That’s a 31.25% failure rate with their most preferred customers. “What’s more,” he added with a disappointed glance, “I predicted this would happen the moment I saw the menu.”

We continued talking. Apparently the meal distribution used to be 60% protein and 40% vegetarian, but a while back it was changed to 50/50, and he didn’t know why—was it a cost decision? He was frustrated that many of his customers don’t get what they want, and he regularly apologizes, while feeling powerless to do anything about the problem.

Is anyone listening to the voice of the customer in the menu planning process? This got me thinking... How would you approach this from a lean perspective? How could you reduce this failure rate and improve customer satisfaction for your most preferred customers? What sort of Small Data could your frontline staff gather (simply, quickly, and at low cost) in order to understand problems and improve customer service and satisfaction?

Small Data can be found everywhere, with every customer transaction and interaction. It is derived from a small population that resembles the larger population and is valid for use in small experiments (kaizen) to drive improvement and spark innovation.

Lean startups are familiar with using small data and rapid experiments. A new software product with a small user base can be tested, one experiment at a time, observing user behavior as they respond to each change. Can a large, established enterprise think and act this way too?

Of course they can. They can start with the point of frequent customer interaction, the Gemba. This is why a customer call center can be so valuable, yet many companies (especially big ones) treat it as a cost center, staffing with lowest cost individuals who are incented by call volume statistics rather than meaningful customer interactions.

In the case of the airline, they could start by selecting a small group of experienced flight attendants, and ask each one open-ended questions: what challenges do they hear from customers? What do they wish they could do better? Then they could listen for the common themes or patterns that emerge. Next, they could work to validate these discoveries by sampling a larger pool, this time in a more structured format that enables them to quantify and visualize the data.

This process should help identify the key question that every lean practitioner should always ask: What is the problem and why is it important?

The key lesson with Small Data is to help everyone pay attention to the little things and make evidence-based observations whenever they can. This means helping frontline workers learn to see waste and spot opportunities for improvement and innovation. It also means helping managers and supervisors to be more attentive to frontline workers who experience those interactions every day, and make a point to become better listeners. It’s a win-win-win effort. Small Data. Small Investment. Big Value.

For more on listening to the virtual voice of the customer, see the video of Steve Bell’s presentation at the 2012 Lean Transformation Summit.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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kevin kobett July 30, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
A good question to ask employees is, "What irritates you?" As you mentioned the flight attendant was frustrated. Anytime you are irritated with a task, write it down and share.

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Karyn Ross July 30, 2013
Yes! I agree! I always say "a complaint is a process improvement waiting to happen", whether it is from your customer OR from your team member!

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chad werkmeister July 30, 2013
3 People AGREE with this comment
In my experience, asking the front line team members what problems they encounter on a daily basis is a huge first step on getting them involved in Lean principles. If you listen, respond quickly (or at least engage them further in finding a solution), and stay open with the status of the project, you can almost see them buying in to the reality that Lean isn't just formal exercises - it's day-to-day solutions to waste.

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Allan July 31, 2013

While this is a valid point I feel this article is missing a point - Cost.

What if the airline company wants to curtail expenses in first class by providing more pasta than fish (I am on the assumption that Fish is more expensive than pasta). While I agree that you need to go to the source of customer/supplier interaction, there are other underlying factors that may hamper true customer satisfaction to occur.


Also,  Airlines don't upgrade everyone to first class, hence they probably cut corners on availability of food and more often than not, the same menu is share with business class as well. 

While this post talks about the power of customer feedback, profit is also equally important for a business to thrive on. 

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Katy August 08, 2013
Cost and financial concerns are important.  I believe that if you focus on the needs of the customer or customer focused thinking that finances will follow.  In this case, pasta may be cheaper than fish.  What happens when the fish loving 1st class customers move to a different airline because on this airline they do get what they want to eat.  May be a stretch but it might just be the tipping point for a customer's decision to move airlines.

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James Stewart July 31, 2013

At a time where everyone is talking about 'Big Data' it is re-assuring to know I am not alone.

The problem I have found with organisations I have worked with collecting lots of 'Big data' to makie 'big decisions' not only does it take a huge investment in time and money but  I have found they  generally become even more disconnected from the 'Gemba' and more importantly the customer.

With leaders support on the frontline, if staff were emowered to make decisions and changes that effect thier customer based on 'Small Data' and immediate feedback,  it would save millions in big IT investment programmes and actually serve customers needs.

Unfortunately the only downside is if you are one of the 'Big Data' global IT companies selling this as the answer to all your organisations problems!



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