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Using Lean to Create Indelible Impressions That Wow Customers

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Lean thinking drives the delivery of indelible impressions; the kind of impressions that really "Wow" customers. It does this by creating a workforce made up of individuals who are continually focused on the work they're doing. This translates into their being completely focused on meeting customers' needs. And when this happens, you've got a winner in the retail marketplace.
Henry Ford, in many ways the father of Lean manufacturing, states in his 1923 classic, My Life and Work, "It's a reciprocal relationship—the boss is the partner of the worker, the worker is the partner of the boss." If a company that serves the public through retail sales did nothing more than try to ensure that all of its managers and supervisors believed what Ford was saying and also acted upon this belief, they would have gone a long way in the direction of becoming a winner in the retail marketplace. What would separate them from their competitors? It's the prevalence of a very different understanding of the value of frontline employee contributions to the success of a company, epitomized by a comment made recently by a professor of human resources management who said, in commenting on auto workers who were forced to take jobs at McDonald's, "You have to be realistic and understand that you're not offering special skills to McDonald's. Your job flipping burgers is not critical to their success." Of course, this statement is nonsense but, that aside, it's also commonplace. So, if your company operates on the basis of a belief system much closer to Henry Ford's than to this professor, it won't take a lot of extra fine-tuning to really differentiate yourself from your competitors. Lean thinking and Lean work processes can spark a sustainable and continuing improvement in the quality of your employees' encounters with customers. In doing this, they will markedly improve your productivity and profitability.
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Lean thinking drives the delivery of indelible impressions; the kind of impressions that "Wow" your customers. The kind of impressions that distance you from your competition. The kind of impressions that build sales. Those of you who listened to last week's podcast will recall some of the experiences I described that my wife, Dolores, and I have had at a local grocery store. It's a place where customers are being continually amazed by the responsiveness of its employees, by their energy, by their total focus on making customer experiences absolutely exceptional. It's a really unique retail environment and, by the way, it's almost always filled with smiling customers. Within the confines of this island of exceptional customer service, the impact of the recession certainly isn't to be seen. The key question is this: How does this level of customer service happen? What drives it? What management beliefs and practices power it? What are the key values and skills that their employees are taught in their training sessions? And moving beyond this great place, what beliefs and practices drive exceptional customer service in any retail environment, the type of customer service that delivers indelible impressions, the kind of impressions that build sales and profitability. By the way, my repetitive use of the word "indelible" is intentional because it's my belief, and I'm sure yours upon reflection, that the only level of customer service that really drives sales is the type that you and I, as consumers, simply can't forget. When it happens, we say "Wow" and we remember it and we talk about it to our friends. Any level of customer service below the level of "indelible" isn't even close to being a game-changer. At best, average customer service will barely keep a company in the game ... maybe. In fact, in today's economic environment, delivering "average" customer service is a relatively certain route to failure. The good news is that your company has within its power the opportunity to make the experiences your customers have the kind that drives expressions of "Wow."

What does it take to make this happen? I'm suggesting that nothing will drive the creation of an absolutely spectacular, customer friendly work environment faster and better than the application of Lean thinking and Lean work processes. It's within your power, right now, to start this process. Will it be easy? No? Does it work? Absolutely.

Okay, what's the first step in driving this kind of a transformation? As with any change process, the vital first step is recognizing where you are right now. And, when implementing Lean thinking, knowing where you and your management and supervisory team are "right now" is very important. You need to know what your managers and supervisors core beliefs are about the role of front line employees in the success of their company. Of course, beliefs only have meaning when they're seen in action. As we all know from long experience, if you want to know what a person believes the most reliable indicator certainly isn't what they say, it's what they do. Actions are the only reliable indicators of beliefs.

What are the key beliefs that are at the heart of Lean thinking? And what are some of the common beliefs that are absolutely guaranteed to drive poor customer service and, as a result, kill sales? First, a key belief of Lean, best expressed by Henry Ford, in many ways the father of Lean, is the conviction that line workers are just as important to the success of a company as any member of the company's management team. Ford said, "It's a reciprocal relationship - the boss is the partner of the worker, the worker is the partner of the boss." Contrast this statement with a comment made by a professor of human resources management and cited in a recent article in a major metropolitan newspaper. The article had to do with how workers who had been downsized and who had to take lower paying jobs should adjust their perspectives regarding their understanding of the importance of their work. She was quoted as saying, "You have to be realistic and understand that you're not offering special skills to McDonald's. Your job flipping burgers is not critical to their success." Is she kidding? Why do you and I go to McDonald's? To buy hamburgers. How do we evaluate whether or not we've made a good buy? By whether or not the hamburger tastes good. Who plays an absolutely key role in determining whether or not our hamburger tastes good? The person "flipping the burgers." Not crucial to the success of McDonald's? On the contrary, the people who flip the burgers are at the very heart of the success of McDonalds. Bad burgers. Unhappy customers. Great burgers. Happy customers and repeat business. It's that simple. So the first step in the application of Lean thinking so that it drives exceptional customer service is having some very focused discussions with your management and supervisory team on their understanding of the role that the folks who are on the front lines, either with direct customer contact or "flipping burgers," play in their company's success. If their beliefs, as measured by their actions, tend toward the belief shared by the professor I just quoted, before anything else happens, these beliefs have to be changed.

The second step in creating a work environment in which indelible impressions happen routinely is to understand what your frontline employees believe to be their primary job responsibilities. You need to know if they understand the importance of those moments when they're face to face with a customer. You need to know if they understand that the customer needs to believe, as a result of your employee's behavior, that more than anything else, your company wants to listen to its customers and serve them well. For example, you need to know if your employees believe what this employee at a client of mine said, "I will bend over backwards to do good work but at my rate of pay it isn't very efficient just to talk and be friendly to the customer." Now I happen to know that the employee who said this is a hard worker, by many measures a good employee. Is his understanding of the role he can play in building business one that will create "indelible impressions"? Absolutely not. Does this kind of thinking need to be changed? Absolutely. Can it be changed? Absolutely. Is it going to be difficult to change? Absolutely. Are resources available that will drive this kind of change? Absolutely. We can provide them for your company.

Okay, once the beliefs of your management and supervisory team have been addressed what needs to happen next? What's step three in your transition to being a place of indelible impressions? A place that "Wows" its customers?

Step three sounds so simple that to some it hardly seems credible. But here it is. Listen to your employees. Continually ask your employees, "What do you think?" Through your actions and the actions of your managers and supervisors make sure that your frontline employees, the ones with direct customer contact, the ones who flip burgers, understand that you value their creativity and that you value their knowledge and that you understand that if they're not successful, you're not successful. Remember what Henry Ford said about line workers, "it's a reciprocal relationship."

As we all know, it takes actions to turn beliefs into practice. One of the most powerful tools I've seen to make employees really believe that their company values their ideas is called the "IdeaBoard." I learned about this terrific way of driving high levels of employee engagement in a great book by David Mann entitled, "Creating a Lean Culture." Here's how it works. A board with four columns is posted in, say, the employee breakroom. The four columns are labeled, "My Idea," "To Do," "Doing,", and "Done." Next to the IdeaBoard is a pad of Post-it notes. When an employee has an idea about a way to improve work processes, for example, or how to improve the quality of customer service, they write this idea on the Post-it note and stick it on the IdeaBoard in the "My Idea" column. They do the same thing if they spot some wasted time or motion, they briefly describe the time or motion waster on a Post-it note, sign and date their observation and put it on the IdeaBoard. It's that simple. Of course, before the IdeaBoard is launched, employees are briefed by their supervisors on why it's there; on why it's important; on why their ideas are valued and on why their ideas are needed if the company is going to succeed. And, of course, the messengers have to believe the message, but when all this happens, Wow! Seven of my clients are using IdeaBoards to drive higher levels of employee engagement and higher levels of employee focus on work processes.

As I've mentioned earlier in this series of podcasts, there's a strong relationship between Lean thinking and the creation of indelible impressions. Lean thinking drives a high degree of focus. Focus drives indelible impressions. When Dolores and I go to our favorite grocery store, we know that the focus of all of this incredible place's employees is on us and making sure that our impressions of their service are indelible. And we just love it.

So, here again are the three first steps to take in driving very high and sustained levels of customer service and, as a result, creating an environment that continually triggers indelible impressions.

First, understand what your managers and supervisors believe about the role frontline employees' play in the success of your company. On a continuum, are they closer to Henry Ford or to the professor I quoted at the beginning of this podcast.  If they're closer to Ford, you've got a management team prepared to drive Lean thinking. If not, well, there's work that has to be done.

Second, understand what your employees believe about the importance of face-to-face customer encounters. On a continuum, are they closer to the fellow who said "at my rate of pay it's not very efficient to be friendly with customers" or are they closer to the clerk at the grocery store Dolores and I just love who at the checkout counter looked at a container of blueberries and said, "this one looks like it doesn't have quite enough blueberries in it." Next she rang a bell and an associate sprang into action to go get a package with more blueberries. Following this, she said to us," I wanted to make sure you didn't get short changed." There was no ambiguity in our minds on where her focus was. It was on us. And we just loved it.

Third, take action to translate your beliefs in the very high value of your line workers, your employees with direct customer contact, by using a tool like the IdeaBoard.

Can a workforce be transformed into one which is focused on creating indelible customer service experiences? Absolutely. Is driving this kind of change difficult? Absolutely. Are resources available that will drive this kind of change? Absolutely. We can provide them for your company. And we'd greatly value the opportunity to meet with you to talk about how to make this happen.

Next week's podcast, the third in this series, will highlight some of the outstanding results that high focus, high engagement performance improvement programs can deliver, based on experiences I've had working on teams with a major performance improvement company, as well as the personal experiences of professionals like yourselves.

If you'd like to get information about training and consulting services available through St. Louis Community College's Center for Business, Industry & Labor, services that will drive the delivery of indelible customer service impressions by your employees, please call me, George Friesen, at 314-303-0612, and let's talk. Have a good week!