Challenges of Service Lean Implementation

Lean implementation can be quite challenging in a service organization. While the principles and learnings from Lean manufacturing are also conceptually applicable to the service business, Lean implementation needs to be done quite differently in the service industry because of the context under which service processes operate. The relevant list of Lean principles is quite long, but I will encapsulate the key challenges that make Lean implementation a difficult proposition.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Processes Are Not Visible

In a manufacturing context, waste identification is relatively easy because it is visible. All that one needs to do is to master the art of observation. Abnormality identification gets enhanced by tools such as value stream maps. Unlike manufacturing, in which one can see the processes getting executed before one’s eyes, in the case of service organizations, processes are often not visible. In a service business, many times processes that are not visible result in wastes that are not visible. As a result it requires a high degree of skill, wherein one needs to look for things such as work-arounds, complexity-manifestation, voice-of-customer, etc. These are enhanced by tools such as the Lean Opportunity Questionnaire and Value Stream Maps.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Processes Are Large and Complex

Meaningful impact from processes can only be felt when end-to-end processes are taken up for improvement. Given the size and complexity of processes, this is often not easy in a service organization. For example, there could be processes in service companies that not only cut across functional silos but also geographies. Managing such a large process for improvements is not easy because it not only requires integrating a large number of improvements across all the sub-processes but also engaging teams in various functional silos.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Processes Are People Intensive

Service processes are people intensive. This brings in the task of aligning all individuals directly or indirectly associated with the process on the improvement goals. Lean implementation for service process would have improvement goals that could have both tangible and intangible components. The intangible elements of Lean implementation in service processes are dependent on moods of people and how they are feeling it at different points of time. Getting consistency on this dimension puts additional pressure beyond getting buy-in from all stakeholders impacted by the improvements.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Processes Are Technology Dependent

A large number of service processes are technology enabled. Many times there are IT systems that do not communicate with each other. There could be issues pertaining to slow-moving business intelligence, flexible infrastructure, data integrity, modular processes and so on. As a part of Lean implementation, it is imperative that these IT issues are addressed simultaneously to ensure Lean implementation has the greatest impact on the business outcomes.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Very Little Books of Knowledge for Service Lean

Unlike our friends in manufacturing, practitioners of service Lean do not have ready success stories that they could refer to. We still have yet to come across the Toyota of services that we could emulate. There are very few books of knowledge available that people could buy. I am probably the first person to have provided a holistic approach to Lean implementation in my book Lean for Service Organizations and Offices—A Holistic Approach for Operational Excellence;however, I am confident that going forward we shall see many more books on service Lean that will address the various nuances of Lean application to service processes.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Concept of Pull and Flow

Applying the concept of pull and flow as a principle of Lean is quite difficult to service processes. Many times people have to look for intelligent hybrid solutions that mimic the concept of pull as seen in manufacturing companies. Creating supermarkets and cellular layout require out-of-the-box ideas, which sometimes need to be supported with technology. While looking at customer facing processes, we may have to also take generous help from concepts such as Little’s Law (Queuing Theory) to arrive at solutions.

Service Lean Implementation Challenge—Processes Cut Through Vendors

In a service organization, vendors broadly play two roles. On one hand they can be suppliers of materials that are used in the process (such as plastic being supplied for credit cards). Or there could be processes that are given to vendors for execution. In this case, part or whole of an end-to-end process passes through a vendor for execution. This is also called "outsourcing." Holistic Lean implementation would require both types of vendors to be taken onboard the organization’s operational excellence journey. Aligning employees of an external partner on the organization’s operational excellence goal is not easy; it requires a high level of commitment from both the organization and the partner (vendor) organization to make this happen. Before we mindlessly outsource processes to partners, we should see if the same can be avoided by achieving cost efficiency through Lean implementation.

These are just a few of the challenges that one faces while embarking on a journey of service Lean implementation. Service Lean is filled with trials and tribulations that require an open mind that is ready to experiment.