Home > Gemba Coach> How can there be standards -- or kaizen -- in a service job when no two instances are the same?

How can there be standards -- or kaizen -- in a service job when no two instances are the same?

Permalink   |   1 Comment   |   Post a Comment   |  
  |   RSS

Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m in a service job and I struggle with the idea of standards. I read that there can be no kaizen without standards but how can you have standards when no two instances are the same?

One of my very successful friends once recommended a clothes shop for a summer jacket. One day, as I accidentally walked past it, I recognized the brand and, although it looked rather over my paygrade, I … stepped in. I was doomed.

When I later told my friend I’d walked out with a ridiculously high-priced jacket that I didn’t even like, he laughed and said, “Good salesmen, aren’t they? Think of it as paying for the masterclass.” Since the lesson was quite expensive, I have indeed been thinking about it.

The salesman first established rapport:

  • How can I help?
  • I’m looking for a very lightweight dark blue business jacket that doesn’t crunch up in travel to wear in this heat (thinking that was an impossible request)
  • Yes, it’s difficult to have to wear a jacket when it’s this hot, the temperatures are so high this year!
  • Particularly when you travel a lot.
  • Yes, you never know what to do with a jacket; keep it or put it with your bag.

Then he checked his understanding (getting me to agree in the process):

  • You’re looking for something without lining, right?
  • As light as possible, yes.
  • And you won’t consider linen because it creases too much, right?
  • Yes, no linen.
  • I agree, some people don’t mind the wrinkles, personally, I feel it always looks iffy.

Then he switched me:

  • We don’t usually carry this sort of thing but we’ve got one that you might like.
  • But it’s light blue, not dark!
  • Summer color. Try it on. And look, it’s woven so that it’s totally crease-resistant.

He creases the sleeve while taking it off the hanger and opening it up for me to try on.

  • Perfect fit.
  • I was something more of a blazer type thing, for work
  • It’s summer, you don’t need to look so dour. This color is perfect, look at it!

And then he closed:

  • Sleeves will need to be shortened slightly, there don’t move.

A couple of pins go in

  • The alterations are free, we’ll have it ready for you in 48 hours.

I did try to walk out of it:

  • I’m really not sure about the color
  • This is a rare model, you’re not likely to find any other like this. And it looks really good and fresh.
  • It’s quite expensive.
  • Top quality sir! Nacre buttons! It will last you years.

To cut a long story short, I bought it and still haven’t worn it once.

Suckered or Sold?

No two customers are alike, won’t you agree? And yet the salesman was following a standard sequence of steps. Each step was difficult in itself as I was a reluctant customer, and yet he steered me through the process to the goal post. And I’m not even upset, all in all, I feel like “Ah, that’s what it feels like to buy expensive stuff.” I’m not about to do it again, but I’m not angry at him for suckering me into purchasing.

Standardized work, the clear sequence of actions to get to the result, is a beginning, not an end.Standardized work is not a process we’re forced to follow. Standardized work is the ideal process in our mind to get us the outcomes we seek. The salesman is not thinking:

  1. Establish rapport – tick the box;
  2. Check needs – tick the box;
  3. Switch to what we have on hand – tick the box;
  4. Close – tick the box;
  5. Reassure – tick the box;

If he did, I’d probably regained psychological control and walked out without buying. More likely, he is looking to actively sell:

  1. What opportunity has this customer given me to establish rapport?
  2. What specific needs is he expressing that are unique to him?
  3. What have I got in stock that is close to what he is looking for and how large is the gap?
  4. How do I make it seem like the sale is closed although he is still hesitating (the pin trick is great because he is altering the jacket, with a strong assumption it’s already mine)
  5. How do I best reassure him he is getting good value for money? That his wife/friends won’t laugh at him for being a sucker?

And then for every step, what is the key, secret ingredient to make it work. A step is only a step – what makes it click?

Well, I asked. When I came back for the jacket, I complimented the guy on his sales touch and asked. Come on, please, tell me. What’s your secret to selling?

“Tone,” he finally answered after demurring. Tone? Yes, he explained. Finding the right tone of voice for each customer. He tries to resonate with the tone of the customer.

Whether this is a valid sales technique or not, I couldn’t say – but there was a key point to the standard.

Standards are life-saviors especially when each job is different. It saves you from going in “as yourself” and then suffer the emotional blowback when things don’t work out as planned. With a standard in mind, you can have the affective confidence that you know what you’re doing because … you’re doing something.

Standards Are References

It’s all about orientation (what is the goalpost here?) and intention (what is the process I’m trying to follow?) and skill (what is the key factor I need to work on?).

In our bureaucratic culture, standards tend to be interpreted as the procedures one has to follow (or else!). But that’s silly – imagine I step in the store saying, “That jacket in the front window, I want it.” Would you then slow me down and ask me “Who are you? Are you sure? Why? We probably have something else that would suit your needs better?” Of course not. You close now, sell me the thing, end of story.

In lean, standards are reference points so that you can orient yourself in messy processes and know where you stand. They also highlight the sticky parts of the process you need to master and create the basis for kaizen because we can then ask:

  1. Why is this so tricky? Can we make it easier?
  2. Why do I interrupt the customer flow (with paperwork for instance)? Can I make this go quicker?
  3. Why is this so costly? Can I do this cheaper?
  4. Why is this so boring? Is there a way to make it more interesting?

In any non-repetitive job: 1/ keep the prize in mind (where is the goal post here – satisfied customer, high quality job) as we often get distracted by the process itself; 2/ what is the four-step plan to achieve this (the “standardized work”); 3/ what do I need to have on hand to make this plan work and how do I position myself (a little 5S, never hurts); 4/ what are the key skills I need to practice every day to make the plan go smoothly? 5/ what real life opportunities can I exploit to ditch the plan to go to the goalpost faster? 6/ are these occasions for kaizen?

In any job, using standards makes the difference between working as a professional or as yourself. They are not the lock on a process we often think they are. They are the flag on top of the hill we must reach. They describe the ideal movement, the one we need to practice to one day reach perfectly effortlessly and seamlessly. Which is how they are the source of kaizen.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Simon Gary August 8, 2019

Great example and post! I wonder if there is also a bit of "shu-ha-ri" logic here too.

As the salesman has, through experience, become the process expert, he is able to work more fluidly within the standard, with a great degree of comfort.

This is what point 4, above, affirms. "What are the key skills I need to practice every day to make the plan go smoothly?"

The challenge then becomes how we make tht knowledge available to everyone.

Other Michael Ballé Related Content

Gold Mine Master Class



  • Are You Narrowing Your Problems Down?
    "Rationality did not lay in higher reasoning powers, in visionary schemes, but in the ability to narrow down problems until one reached the nitty-gritty level at which one could actually do something about them," writes the protagonist of Michael Balle's The Gold Mine.
  • Lead With Respect Shares Tangible Practices That Develop Others, Says Author Michael Balle
    Michael and Freddy Balle's book Lead With Respect portrays on-the-job behaviors of lean leaders which can be learned through practice. Michael explains how these can help fulfill the promise of lean by aligning the company’s success to individual fulfillment.
  • How Can Lean Affect Shareholder Value?
    Lean can help challenge assumptions and surface opinions that ultimately improve shareholder value, argues Michael Balle.