Production & Manufacturing

There is no point in lean manufacturing if the customer comes last

Lean Manufacturing and Lean Management

Increasing customer value, not cutting costs, is the primary goal of any small initiative. However, it seems that too many manufacturing enterprises have not received this message yet.

Lean Management is an approach to managing an organization that supports the concept of continuous improvement, which is a long-term approach to business that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in operations in order to improve efficiency and quality.

Lean Manufacturing is a methodology that focuses on reducing waste within manufacturing systems while simultaneously increasing productivity. Waste is seen as anything customers do not think adds value and are not willing to pay for it.

Your company may have applied simple methods for some time, and you can show that the improved flow of information and materials within your organization has reduced lead times and improved quality. But are you sure it’s easy for your customers to access these benefits?

Our guess is that many of you have applied agile concepts and methods to your manufacturing processes, while ignoring the experience of existing and potential customers as they try to work with you.

Much of Ron’s work entails procurement processes that include online research, obtaining quotes from electronics parts vendors and arranging quotes (multiple quotes) from subcontractors to build system components for a major government program. This work is made more difficult by sellers who seem more eager to hide behind carefully designed web pages than to make it easier for potential customers to obtain information.

Gone are the days of simply picking up the phone, calling the Customer Service number, and speaking directly with someone who can help you with your query.

In many cases, even if a website shares a phone number, one must listen carefully to a long list of options to reach someone who can share information. Gone are the days of having a default part of the tree saying, “If you would like to speak with an operator at any time, please press ‘0’.”

Furthermore, many supplier websites don’t even provide a phone number – instead, they ask customers to “fill out a form” describing their needs, then wait in hopes someone will answer their queries.

This doesn’t just apply to smaller suppliers who may not have the resources to provide quick answers around the clock to questions. Ron also encounters this when trying to contact large companies as well. He recently wrote to a couple of potential sellers about his difficulty in obtaining information. One is an American company that generated revenues of more than $13 billion last year, and the other is a European company that generated revenues that exceeded $21 billion in 2021. Both companies frequently tout their commitment to lean principles in their marketing materials.

The lack of response tells customers that “we’re not interested in creating processes that minimize downtime.” It sends the message that “are we willing to make the customer experience more difficult and frustrating if it provides us with efficiencies?” Several years ago, Rick worked for a client who received complaints like the one Ron sent. One customer told the customer, “We love your service once we can actually get in touch with someone who can help us. But that first step is so frustrating, we sometimes give up trying and simply decide to live with our problem rather than keep trying to get help from you.” Long “holds” and dropped calls were frequent complaints. With Rick’s direction, the client assembled a team to map out the process clients experienced when they asked for help or information. After looking at the final “current state” map, one of the team exclaimed, “It’s a wonder any of our clients would still be with us after going through all that just to get an answer to a question.”

The team developed a new process and new procedures by which a customer’s call was always answered with a live voice and then after they answered a few quick questions about their problem it was always forwarded directly to someone who could provide assistance.

A complete solution requires appropriate material development and educational initiative. Change requires an investment of time, energy, and a small budget for implementation. There were no tangible “cost savings” resulting from the new process. However, there has been an improvement in value that customers have noticed and acknowledged.

Let’s go back to our original question: Is customer service poor? It is not weak because you have improved your efficiencies, lowered your own costs, and improved your convenience in dealing with customers. It is not easy unless you can show that you have designed and deployed the processes that make the customer experience better.


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