Applying lean for services

Think work not just process

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Business process re-engineering and Six Sigma thinking has traditionally focused on process. Lean practitioners, particularly in the service sector, have realised that process improvement makes up only one third of the organisational jigsaw required to embed sustainable change.

Thought leadership

To make operations organisational change effective, it is important to recognise that “work” and operations management capability are at least as important as process improvement. This one pager seeks to explain why “work” is so important.

The way work flows through a business is generally a function of the unpredictability therein. For example, a transactional process with high predictability (process step A will move to process step B >90% of the time) can be organised as a flow line in a similar way that one might find in manufacturing. Lead-times and repeatability are emphasised and efficiency measures can be used.

In the service industry however, many processes are much less predictable since the supplier of information is often the end user/customer. Efforts can be made to make the process more predictable but these actions often run the risk of alienating the customer by getting them to do work that they have no wish to do.  In this instance, the organisation must think of ways to ensure good service and remaining effective. Work can be organised in an unpredictable environment into either case ownership or cellular teams.

If the work is not very complicated but inherently unpredictable (a call centre for example) then case ownership models can be adopted. The workers need to be multi-skilled and able to resolve a query or case from “cradle to grave”.

In more complicated environments where work is both complicated and unpredictable, a cellular approach is advised. Organisations cannot hope to multi-skill/cross-train large numbers of people quickly. Instead, teams are dedicated to customer segments and each team contains the full range of skills necessary for fulfilment. Team measures are essential so that the “cell” works together to move work as quickly and accurately as possible through the organisation.

Key steps for implementation

1. Assess work predictability
2. Assess process complexity
3. Design solution using agreed design principles, sizing teams
4. Set up proof of concept
5. Using learnings from proof of concept set up pilot
6. Run pilot and prepare roll out.

Typical pitfalls

Although many organisations in the service sector have started to understand that the organisation of work is very important, they don’t always implement all the necessary actions to ensure success.

There are three main areas where they fail:

  1. Individual productivity measures are retained in cellular models thus under-mining the team focus;
  2. Whenever problems arise, managers tend to revert to function/silo scale based thinking and alienate the customers by focusing on efficiency rather than effectiveness;
  3. Nowhere near enough emphasis is placed on coaching and cross-training so multi-skilling levels do not develop fast enough for either case ownership or cellular models to succeed.


Lean practitioners in the UK have seen between 10 & 30% service and productivity improvements by implementing the appropriate work design. Expert led diagnostics coupled with input from local subject matter experts allow Lean practitioners to establish the correct model.