Lean Services: Asia's Preeminent Deployment Leader Gives Global Insights on Lean Six Sigma for Services

While Lean has been an effective process improvement method for the manufacturing industry, some service companies have only begun the journey of implementing this methodology to assist with achieving operational excellence. Debashis Sarkar, who currently leads the Organizational Excellence Group at ICICI Bank from its headquarters in Mumbai, India, knows firsthand the trials and tribulations of this process—he is noted for his achievement in being the first person to deploy Lean successfully in a service organization in Asia. Sarkar shares this knowledge with Six Sigma IQ by discussing the development of his DEB-LOREX model—a Lean implementation model designed for service organizations—his experience in deploying Lean within ICICI Bank and the current state of global service Lean deployment

Tell us about your role at ICICI Bank.

I lead the Organizational Excellence Group at ICICI Bank. This group is responsible for instilling excellence across business units of ICICI Bank. The group’s key deliverables comprises: A) building a culture of continual improvement, B) partnering with business units to drive operational excellence and enhance business-performance, C) embedding management-processes that keeps the excellence engine going, D) building improvement capabilities within business groups and E) working on practices of future.

How did you come up with the idea that Lean can be deployed within service organizations?

It all began in early 2000s when we were scripting the quality roadmap for the bank. We decided to take the less trodden path. Our focus was to look for a practice that was simple, could deliver instant benefits and could engage a large organization. That’s where my manufacturing experience helped, and I picked up 5S. My colleagues and friends told me that I was not doing the right thing and that we should go for Six Sigma, which was then the darling of the financial services world. I was even told that getting the engagement of white collared workers on 5S would not be possible. My belief was simply that if we are able to demonstrate business benefits from a workplace organization method such as 5S, we could for sure get the engagement of the employees across hierarchies. Beyond positively engaging people, we just focused on one target, which was to ensure that 5S deployment should result in 30 seconds retrieval of documents.

We did the first pilot in the bank branches in the eastern part of India. The intervention had transformed the branches, and one could see the visible change in performance. The effect of the 30 seconds retrieval was that customer response times came crashing down, processes become efficient, workplaces suddenly became clutter free and operating expenses came plummeting down. The success got the attention of CEOs and business leaders. It’s then that the organization took a call that 5S needed to be rolled out across the length and breadth of the company. This was the starting point of our Lean journey. As a matter of fact, 5S was the starting point of "proactive" organization-wide improvement journey.

The lessons were simple:
  • Do not use the improvement method that the world is using. Do what is relevant for your company and context.
  • Before you get into enterprise-wide deployment of process improvement methods such as Six Sigma, build a foundation of workplace and processes management.
  • Even a seemingly simple practice like 5S can deliver visible benefits to a service organization and can get the engagement of white-collared workers.
This was the first brush with Lean. Having installed an enterprise-wide workplace management system, we embarked to strengthen the existing processes by installing metrics, process ownership, etc. With a foundation of workplace and process management in place, we began our process improvement journey when we commenced using Lean for process improvements. So far we would have done a large number of projects and seen some great results. The beauty of Lean is that it delivers quick results, ensures involvement of people across hierarchies and is simple to understand. I have seen that once an individual goes through a five to six day Lean breakthrough, he is a convert. So I keep on insisting business leaders to be a part of a Lean breakthrough, understand the eight wastes and learn to interpret value stream maps.

Lean to me is not an improvement method, it is an over-arching philosophy and movement to take the company to newer heights. Before we commenced with implementing service Lean, I would have spent at least three years in creating the book of knowledge. The journey was arduous, but today its satisfying that I have a working Lean content that can be readily adopted by any service organization.

How can service organizations deploy Lean?

If you want to know a holistic approach to Lean journey, you may like to go through my book: Lean for Service Organizations and Offices: A Holistic Approach for Achieving Operational Excellence.

However, I only have the following cautions and suggestions:
  • Be clear on why you want to implement Lean. Ensure there is a business case that is important to the CEO and the top management team.
  • Do not treat Lean as just another improvement tool. To get the full juice out of it, use it as an enabler for business improvement. Focus on holistic Lean deployment, which has positive impact of the organization’s business objectives. This is where a model like DEB-LOREX can be handy in providing a broad direction.
  • Begin with a small pilot. Put all efforts to make this successful. A successful pilot would entail complete transformation of an independent entity, which could be a small business unit, a branch, a location, a product family, a process. However, whatever you take, make sure that the impact is visible and there is a resolution of a chronic business problem.
  • Lean in services, while being quite similar, is still very different from manufacturing. You need someone experienced in service Lean, who can guide the organization in the early days.
  • Focus on creating Lean mavens and Lean navigators in your firm. These line managers would be the change agents to make the intervention successful.
You are the developer of the DEB-LOREX model, which you wrote extensively about in Lean For Services Organizations and Offices: A Holistic Approach for Achieving Operational Excellence and Improvements. What is this model and how does it relate to service Lean?

The word DEB-LOREX is an acronym for Deb’s Lean Organizational Excellence Model. The word Deb is from my name Debashis. The DEB-LOREX model is a management system to drive operational excellence in service organizations using the principles of Lean thinking. Built around systems thinking, the model requires a Lean architecture to be hardwired around five solid anchors comprising people, processes, partners, promotions and problem solving. Designed for service organizations and offices, the universal nature of the model makes it applicable also to manufacturing companies.

The Toyota Production System has offered to the world a world-class model to drive operational excellence in manufacturing organizations. What I have found is that service organizations find it very difficult to understand and adopt. This is where a model like DEB-LOREX is of great help.

How has ICICI Bank exemplified the ideals of DEB-LOREX through its Lean implementation?

Complete implementation of a holistic model such as DEB-LOREX takes time. We at ICICI Bank have unveiled the implementation of the model only recently. Our endeavor is to ensure that the building blocks of the model get embedded organically in the company so that it can deliver sustained value to the company.

What noted process improvement successes have ICICI Bank experienced through its application of Lean?

The Lean engine has delivered encouraging results for us at ICICI Bank across a wide range of functions such as Operations, Credit, Sales, Technology, Collections, Contact Centre, Internal Audit, Facilities Management, etc. Over the last two years as an organization we have done more than 200 Lean Breakthrough projects that have had substantial positive impact on metrics such as productivity, conversion ratios, defects, lead time, resource optimization, etc.

What are some other notable Indian service organizations that have either implemented or just begun to implement Lean? What has been the level of success for these firms?

Not just in India but all over Asia, ICICI Bank is probably the first company to have commenced with Lean implementation. It began with the enterprise adoption of 5S, which was later followed by the implementation of Lean.

Other service companies in India that have reported successes with Lean projects are Wipro, Infosy, etc.

However, my sense is that most of these companies are in their early days and have miles to go before they can be a truly "Lean" company.

Are the ideas of service Lean beginning to catch on globally, and what are the ramifications of this?

I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the Lean implementation in some of the best service companies in the world. Yes, the idea of service Lean is catching up. Countries and continents where the deployment is happening in large scale are: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, India, Singapore and Australia.

However, many of these are "tactical-deployments." Somehow many of them are still not looking at Lean as a strategic tool for building competitive advantage. Lean is still being looked at as another of those "techniques" from the quality and improvement teams. In most of these organizations Lean is not on the agenda of the CEO or the top management.

Companies are either embedding "Lean with Six Sigma" or are deploying "Lean" in isolation. While these are delivering some short-term results, I do not think these companies have a long-term strategy to leverage Lean as an enabler for long-term performance excellence.

However, as the adoption of Lean matures, I see it being used to address a wide range of problems faced by service companies such as complexity reduction, sales force productivity enhancement, operations risk control, cost leadership, revenue betterment, combining scale with flexibility, service excellence and improving employee morale and involvement.

What can we learn from service Lean? Why may it be more important now, in light of the current global economy, that service organizations consider Lean deployment?

There are a large number of lessons that Lean can provide to service companies. However, the ones that are closest to my heart are: A) complexity reduction, B) focused improvements by line managers, C) quick results, D) creativity before capital and E) relentlessly getting back to the basics.

Lean can be a brilliant antidote for organizations in the current financial down. The knee-jerk reaction of most companies is to cut down costs and lay off people. However, for creating a sustained agile enterprise, these companies can adopt Lean thinking as an enabler for business performance improvement. Any change requires a sense of urgency. The current environment has forced on us a sense of urgency that we all cannot avoid. Globally, CEOs are looking at possible solutions and one of the arrows in their quiver is Lean. I think the onus is also on Lean practitioners like me to familiarize CEOs and business leaders on the power of Lean and what it can do for their business. I do not see a better time for the growth and adoption of the Lean practice than the current context. If we miss the bus now, we would have missed the opportunity to leverage a brilliant practice for bettering the performance of service organizations.

Interview by Genna Weiss, editor