Lean continuum

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Initial premise of lean service

The traditional lean tools and techniques developed in the manufacturing arena are rigorously applied to drive out variety and variability in manufacturing processes in the pursuit of improved efficiency. This approach is fine, even in a service environment, provided that you are addressing a repeatable standard transactional process, typically with high volumes. However, in the service arena, a large percentage of processes are not simple repetitive transactions. Service is typified by high levels of input case variety, leading to significant cycle time variability. This is driven by factors outside of the business’ control, for example; customers, regulators, third parties.

As a consequence, the application of lean in the service sector requires a good deal more thought, with careful consideration given to the use of individual tools and techniques. Whilst the core lean principles of waste elimination and value still apply, it is the means of execution that must be adapted. Instead of seeing the variety which drives variability as a waste to be eliminated, it has to be recognised as part of the customer value and techniques developed to absorb the variety, thus providing an effective customer service.

Developing skills to deliver excellent customer service

OEE’s tried and tested principle, validated through extensive rigorous implementation is that excellent customer service is founded on waste elimination, continuous improvement, quality assurance, and delivery focus.


Figure 1 OEE service foundation principle

Service activities are characterised by high levels of discretion. To accommodate work in a high discretion environment, together with contributing to the foundation activities, and to thereby deliver excellent customer service requires certain core capabilities from the workforce:

  • Diagnostics ability;
  • Problem solving skills;
  • Empathy;
  • Commitment to finding a solution to the customers’ needs.

Hence the concept of a ‘knowledge worker’ becomes critically important. The key ability of the knowledge worker is to absorb the natural variety in the work delivered to them and continue to deliver excellent customer service regardless. In this context, it is important to recognise that providing a service to the customer should be treated in exactly the same way, regardless of whether the customer is an internal or external customer.

While this requirement is easy to see in a customer facing environment such as a shop or call centre, our experience with lean service thinking points to the fact that all the same capabilities are required in other service areas such as marketing, design, IT due to the requirement to service internal customers.

Figure 2 The lean continuum    To view as a PDF click here

The lean continuum illustrates the need for different management techniques when processing high discretion work, as well as the use of knowledge workers. Factors to consider are:

  • Appropriate performance KPIs;
  • Appropriate management style;
  • Appropriate improvement techniques;
  • On-going skills development;
  • Succession planning.

Examples of appropriate KPIs might be; to focus on 1st touch resolution  rather than average handling time or service level in a call centre, or to measure the propensity to make the right quality decision rather than £s collected in a collection centre. The right measure is often not the easy measure.
As more simple work is automated or out-sourced, there is a steady progression towards higher discretion work in many service businesses with a consequent growing demand for knowledge workers. The role of the team leader also changes. The importance of managing the flow of work diminishes and the necessity to focus on coaching skills, rapid feedback loops and developing knowledge in the workforce grows.