Lean spends a lot of time and attention on end customers, and for good reason. There is a ton of insight to be gained from talking with the final consumer of your product or service, to figure out exactly what they define as “valuable”. From there, you can work backwards and identify all the opportunities to remove waste from your processes while still delivering something as valuable (or probably much more valuable) as the original.
While the benefits of completing this process are massive, it does require significant time and energy, and assumes you have the ability to direct resources and make changes outside of a specific job function or department. So, what’s the right way to apply this principle if you’re in charge of one small part of the organization? And how can you apply it today?
For those of us trying to be a lean manager, the answer is the same (go talk to someone), but the subject of your effort is slightly different. I’m referring to your process customers. Are you the 5th step in a 10-step manufacturing process? Walk down the line and talk to the person who does the 6th step. Better yet – spend time observing the work being done, and ask questions. What do you like that we provide? What do you not like? Are there things we’re spending time on that you don’t care about? The answers to these questions are eye-opening, and a little humbling.
Many times, administrative support functions in the office fall into this category, where they aren’t directly involved in the day-to-day value-creation process of the entire business. Take Human Resources, for instance. Have you talked to hiring managers to find out if they prefer interviews to be scheduled in a group on a single day, or level-loaded throughout the week? Or is there something you could do to reduce lead time for the hiring process? Don’t forget to spend time observing the work if possible-pull up a chair and ask questions to better understand. The same types of conversations can be had in Finance, IT, and Purchasing.
The concept is straightforward. For each process:
- Identify the process customer
- Observe their work, talk to them about what you provide today, and how it could be improved
- Work with your team to improve the output
- Follow up with the process customer
Once you’ve completed step 4, start with step 2 again-a lean manager never stops improving! Regardless of your role within the organization, better satisfying your process customers will have a positive impact on your team’s performance, and will reflect well on you and your team.
One last note-there are rare occasions when pleasing the process customer comes at the expense of the company or end customer. In this case, obviously defer to the end customer as the ultimate definer of value. I would challenge you to consider ways to make everyone happy, but in those rare occasions, always defer to the end customer.