How to put the customer at the heart of your improvement culture

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Helen Winsor

Debashis Sarkar, Asia’s Service Lean Pioneer, Author and Thought Leader discusses what successful executive buy-in looks like in a Process Excellence initiative. He breaks this down into the key elements of building a business case, how best to ensure the customer is at the heart of the improvement culture and the associated challenges. Debashis is currently responsible for catalyzing quality improvements at ICICI Bank across its business unit.

Six Sigma IQ: What does successful executive buy-in actually look like in a Process Excellence initiative?
D Sarkar: Before I respond to this question, let me demystify to whom we are referring by the word ‘executive’. ‘Executive’ refers to the top management of the company, which would be the CEO and their direct reports. However, if the organization is large and scattered geographically, the executive band could include the CEO, their two downs, functional heads and also business leaders driving profit and loss.
Successful executive buy-in for a Process Excellence initiative can manifest in various forms, the key ones being:
  • Executives undergoing an alignment workshop to understand the technical dimension of improvement approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, etc
  • Executives actively involved in giving shape to the improvement roadmap
  • Executives sitting on the board (not necessarily the CEO), acting as the sponsor for the improvement journey
  • A CEO reporting progress on improvements at least once a quarter
  • Outcomes of the Process Improvement journey gets discussed at the board level once every six months
  • Process Improvement being looked as a strategy to enhance business performance and not an intervention in isolation (examples could be A3 thinking being adopted for strategy deployment)
  • First hour of every business review dedicated to discussing improvement journey or projects
  • Executives just not focussing on the results of the improvements, but the way the results have been accomplished - this is with an objective of making sure the problem-solving capability gets built it
  • Executives spending one day every two months reviewing improvement projects done by the process-associates or frontliners
  • Leaders continually communicating the overarching power of process
  • Executives looking at Process Improvements as a culture-building exercise and capability-building exercise, and just not an engine for results
  • Executives demonstrating behaviours that encourage process thinking; and appointing a person at a senior level to catalyze the change through Process Excellence
Six Sigma IQ: What are the key elements in building your business case?
D Sarkar: The case should be built and woven around the implicit and explicit needs of the
business. Why I say ‘implicit’ is because sometimes the implicit needs are not stated, but addressing them could be critical for business success. Examples of explicit needs could be in areas such as profits, costs, customer engagement, regulatory compliance, employee engagement, etc. Meanwhile, implicit needs hide within organizational viscera and are not visible, but felt. Examples of implicit needs could be to build culture, reduce complexity, embed process thinking, etc.
Sometimes the business case could be for the future and could be to remain competitive in
the marketplace. These could be both explicit or implict in nature. Whatever the need, the
whole case has to be built around a sense of urgency that Process Excellence is required for
survival and continued success.
Six Sigma IQ: How do you ensure the customer is at the heart of the improvement culture?
D Sarkar: The following are some of the ways in which the customer can be brought to the
heart of improvement culture:
  • Before embarking on Process Excellence journey, clearly state how the entire initiative will impact the customers
  • Ensure the bulk of the improvement projects have an impact on the customers
  • Make sure metrics in processes are end-to-end and are drilled down from customer requirements
  • Ensure Customer Councils are held once a month, chaired by the CEO
  • Ensure customer concerns are cascaded down to the process or individual where the problem occurred
  • Achievements in customer service, customer engagement, customer relationship/loyalty, customer attrition, etc, is a key element of the performance scorecards of all leaders
  • Leaders to meet at least once a month with customers to understand their concerns and how they experience the products or services
  • Leaders to demonstrate through their behaviours and actions that customers are important
  • Create a belief among the employees that organizations would do anything for a legitimate need of a customer (this takes time)
  • Regular voice of the customer is captured to find out how many of them would recommend our products or services
  • Employees are trained on problem-solving skills that can resolve customer concerns
  • Customers are welcomed into the company to see how Process Improvements have impacted them
Six Sigma IQ: And how do you measure the performance of the programme?
D Sarkar: There cannot be a single metric to measure the outcomes of a Performance
Improvement program. There has to be a set of metrics which has to be on the CEO’s
dashboard, which comprises primary and secondary metrics.
The primary metrics that should be tracked are: lead time, quality, customer service and resource utilization. These are for the core processes. The secondary metrics to be tracked
comprise: employee engagement, cost or revenue benefits (attributable to Process
Excellence), flexibility and customer satisfaction.
Beyond metrics, the other things to look for and feel include: general reduction in noise
around customer issues, renewed energy levels to solve problems and an openness to report
Six Sigma IQ: What have you experienced as the main challenges in successfully
embedding an improvement culture?
D Sarkar:
  • Making sure Process Excellence is an integral part of business strategy
  • Ensuring there is sustained engagement of top management, especially if there are changes in leadership
  • Holding the attention of the organization after the initial successes
  • Ensuring Process Excellence initiatives are on the radar of leadership, despite other business challenges
  • Ensuring that teams at middle management-level and lower down have sufficient motivation to stay engaged
  • Keeping teams motivated enough to take up improvement efforts voluntarily
  • Gathering improvement ideas from employees on an ongoing basis
  • And finally, beyond tools, making sure that Process Excellence changes the behaviour of teams.
Probably the issue that never gets discussed is making sure that all processes get improved
voluntarily by employees at all the times - the key essence of an improvement culture.