Keep the Customer in Mind When Applying Lean Principles

Beau Groover

I recently had cause to visit a state government office to conduct some business. Prior to my visit, I decided to do some legwork to see what I was in for and to ensure that I was prepared for the visit. The website was simple enough, and I had no problems discovering what I was looking for in preparation. So, I spent 15 to 20 minutes reviewing the website thinking (very incorrectly) that I might save myself some time if I prepared.

The next day, I visited the office. I stood in line for almost 30 minutes to finally speak with a woman who proceeded to tell me the things that I had already read on the website while also asking a series of questions that the website had pointed out. She then gave me three pages of paperwork to fill out and directed me to wait "over there" until my name was called.

While waiting at the table (for one hour), I filled out the three pages of paperwork. The paperwork was very similar to what I had read online and to what the woman at the desk had asked me. I filled it out thinking about the gigantic tax bills I pay every year and simply shaking my head, but the fun would continue.

Next, my name was called, and I went with a group of other folks into a room where a very polite gentleman proceeded to ask a series of questions. As you might have guessed, these were the same questions that I had read online, been asked by the woman at the desk and had filled out on the little questionnaire. He collected the paperwork and spent about 45 minutes covering things that mostly did not apply to me or my situation.

At this point, I was almost three hours into this process and had accomplished absolutely nothing. I then was directed to a set of computers along with my "classmates" to fill out an online questionnaire. Care to venture a guess as to what was mostly on the questionnaire? Well, if you guessed that it was the same set of information that was on the website, told to the woman at the first desk, filled out on the paperwork, given to the man teaching the class and then covered by him once again, you would be absolutely correct. Give yourself a pat on the back and take a couple of aspirin. I would be willing to bet that someone else was also going to enter in the same information from my questionnaire that I had already filled out and was entering in myself.

If you are like me, I hate seeing processes that simply don't work. I like those processes even less when I am funding them involuntarily from my tax dollars. The people who I interacted with were courteous, friendly and genuinely interested in helping me, but much like what we see when we apply principles of lean, the people are not the problem. We have the people in a terrible process.

How many different ways could I have applied lean principles to this process to save me hours of time and save the government thousands (maybe millions) of dollars each year? I was the customer in the process, but nowhere along the process could I see that anyone had stopped and asked, "How are the customers going to feel about this process?"

Let's review just a minute. What if I had gone online and completed the questionnaire at that point in time (the first time)? What would that have done?

  1. I wouldn't have had to drive (waste of transportation, gas and time).
  2. I wouldn't have had to stand in line (waste of waiting).
  3. I wouldn't have had to fill out the questionnaire again (waste of processing).
  4. I wouldn't have had to listen to the little seminar (waste of a person).
  5. I wouldn't have had to fill out the online questionnaire at the office (waste of processing, waste of a person).

All of this is on top of the computers and equipment, buildings, overhead, and extra personnel standing around. Let's not forget how I as the customer would have felt about the process.

As you apply lean this year, start with your customer in mind and ask this simple question before proceeding: How does this process help my customer?

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