How can you be customer-centric when customer value is getting so difficult to define?

Lean and Six Sigma tools have always emphasized the importance of understanding your customers and using customer feedback – "Voice of the Customer" – as your foundation when identifying opportunities for improvement. But, too often in the past practitioners were overly focused on the tools and methods rather than the outcomes, we need to keep on reminding people the importance of voice of customers, says Sean Shao Changqiang, Regional Lean Six Sigma Manager at Fuji Xerox Global Services Singapore.

And, in today’s fast changing, highly competitive world, that’s not good enough.

In this PEX Network interview, Shao Changqiang argues that not only does process excellence need to deliver "value to customers or, better still, to deliver value to all stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, and communities" but it also needs to incorporate more of a Systems Thinking world view in order to keep up with fast changing, and hard-to-define notions of value in today’s markets.

Customer value is much more difficult to define in today's fast changing world

PEX Network: There seems to be a growing emphasis within process excellence to target improvements that deliver value to the customer. What do you think is driving that?

Sean Shao Changqiang: Process excellence should focus on delivering value to customers. If it is not, then something is "wrong" with the process excellence program. The growing emphasis on delivering value to customers reflects the tendency to focus on tools, techniques and methods, when people are first using them. This happened in the early 1980’s when Six Sigma was first initiated in big companies. Engineers were overly excited by the tools and forgot the "ends" of value to customers.

We need to keep on emphasizing that the purpose of process excellence is to deliver value to customers or, better still, to deliver value to all stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, and communities.

PEX Network: But Lean and Six Sigma have always emphasised understanding the needs of the customer - what's different now?

Sean Shao Changqiang: Yes, Lean and Six Sigma have always emphasized understanding VOC. There are 2 differences now. First, it is more difficult to define "value to customers" as our world moves to a service orientation. Value is more an experience, perception, emotion, beauty, etc.. These are difficult - if not impossible - to define by science only. Second, even if we are able to scientifically define the "value", the "value" changes so fast that when we find way to deliver it, the "value" has already changed.

PEX Network: How do you think Lean and Six Sigma need to evolve to meet this growing emphasis on customer-centric process improvement?

Sean Shao Changqiang: Lean and Six Sigma have evolved from Taylor’s scientific management, Shewhart’s statistical process control, Deming’s profound knowledge, Juran’s trilogy of quality, and many others’ contribution along the way. Lean and Six Sigma (LSS) have been in "fashion" for 30 years. Arguably these are the process improvement methodologies that have served the corporation world quite well for the longest period of time. I think the longevity of LSS is that it has been firmly built on the foundation of scientific management and has adapted/adopted best thinking/practices into its overall methodologies which have delivered significant business results to organizations.

As we are moving to knowledge economy, the value is more difficult to define and changes faster than our improvement, LSS shall bring the customers to the process improvement and let customers be the designers/improvers. The Idealized Design method arising out of Russell L. Ackoff’s System Thinking world view is a good fit for customer-centric process improvement in today’s complex business world.

The key concept of idealized design is to involve all stakeholders, including customers, to design a desirable future and take actions to bring the desirable future to reality. The stakeholders, including customers, are the designers. The idealized design process is not an "ideal" but an ideal seeking process that can learn in and adapt to ever changing environment. DFSS has adopted some techniques such as TRIZ, Design Thinking, Ethonographics, etc. However, the execution of design thinking under the System Thinking world view is still in its infancy. LSS must have the capacity to adopt the System Thinking worldview and integrate whatever the best practices are to its body of knowledge to stay relevant.

PEX Network: What do you think are the biggest barriers to companies actually achieving customer excellence?

Sean Shao Changqiang: There are 3 barriers to achieving customer excellence:

1: We think we understand what customer wants but actually we don’t

2: Customers think they know what they want but actually they don’t

3: Lack of commitment of all levels of an organization to achieve customer –centric process excellence

PEX Network: What can process professionals do to overcome those barriers?

Sean Shao Changqiang: The Idealized Design framework under Systems Thinking world view could be one of the best approaches to overcome those barriers but only when organizations are willing to do it and we have people who can facilitate the idealized design process with a good understanding of Systems Thinking. I think LSS practitioners can easily adopt the thinking and practices to LSS methodology. A good reference book to start with is, Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow's Crisis...Today by Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson and Herbert J. Addison (Apr 30, 2006).

In terms of lack of commitment on process excellence (PEX), my observation is that it is easier to get commitment when organizations are in the state of crisis. The problem is that when an organization is in crisis, the thinking is focusing on survival and not on long term customer excellence.

The best time to initiate PEX is when organizations are doing well and have the time and money to really look at long term development. Only the best companies have the wisdom to do that. We need the concerted efforts of both business leaders and practitioners to overcome those barriers.