I really believe in getting customer input, especially before you build you product or service. Lean Six Sigma includes the concept as part of Voice of Customer, Lean Startup and similar methods include the concept within Customer Development. If you work for an existing organisation that currently delivers products/services rather than a start-up, sometimes it’s easier to actually be your customer than to gather their input.
Many companies try to get closer to customer needs by using mystery shoppers. Again, depending on your product this avenue may not be necessary.
I’ve been reminded of this many times when I see a process that just doesn’t make sense for the customer, but looks like it would have made sense for the person working in the office who created the process. I’ll discuss three examples below:
I was driving back from Llandudno on the A55 and a roadside sign flashed a message of “Incident after junction 32”. These IP-enabled roadsigns are a common sight on most of Britain’s motorways allowing staff to remotely update the message on the sign. But this sign was odd for two reasons. First, it was an A-road so to provide a junction number on the warning signs rather than a destination is not that common a sight. This made me wonder whether the message referred to the road I was driving on now or a road that we would intersect with, e.g. M56 or M6. This was compounded by the second oddity; there were no junction numbers on the static road signs nor on my car’s satnav/GPS. I was left confused by a message that may have a large bearing on my journey or none at all. To this day, I still don’t know where the incident was, I was fortunate enough to have an incident-free journey on my route home.
I worked for a good ICT company almost two decades ago and another one a few years later. In between, I worked for a large consultancy. Both of the ICT companies were moving into the consultancy arena with more mobile staff taking on more business change and less pure ICT activities. As an employee, I found the treatment of mobile staff to be very different between the ICT companies and the consultancy. The policies – such as how much could be spent on hotels, time before you could claim for certain types of expenses, what time the head-office closed in case you were in another country needing assistance to get home – were all written by HR staff from headquarters in both the ICT companies. That made for some interesting events where there were no hotels available (not just a question of standards) for some meetings or no-one to help out when the hire car’s broken down and it’s better for everyone (especially your corporate client) if you change plans. In contrast, the policies at the consultancy were written by consultants who travelled and operated by HR. That made for a much more reliable service, one that gave the mobile staff much better support while travelling.
Local authorities in England inherit the duty to maintain local roads. That involves the scheduling of roadworks and should involve working with national agencies so that motorway roadworks don’t cascade into the local road network. I can think of at least two towns that have had concurrent roadworks on every route out of town, adding 1 or 2 hours to journeys each way. No doubt some of the council officials were involved but probably hadn’t thought of themselves as customers of their own service.
Be The Customer
Both companies could do with thinking about their customers and trying to use the service as a customer would. I think of two actions when I think of being the customer:
- Actively take time out of your product development to go and experience what it’s like as a customer. So go and drive on the road a few times a year and watch what messages, signs are being given, what the spacing of roadworks are.
- Engage your staff to think like customers as they go about their days and then to inform the teams responsible of what they find.
In the case of the the road sign, the HR policies and possibly the roadworks, the events were initiated by people in the office. All of these could have been improved by being the customer. I saw the difference with the HR policies, it was a much more comfortable experience recognising that as a mobile employee, you were often away from home and family. The issue with roadworks is probably more one of common sense, rather than being a customer. Why block every main artery and some of the minor ones? The act of being a customer creates a better mindset, by forcing you to think in more basic terms. It’s not about the difficulties in the office, takt time or production control, it’s about what you experience as a customer. I’m pretty sure that Traffic Wales would have had the equivalent of England’s Highways Agency Officers driving up and down the A55. Unfortunately, having them think what it’s like being a customer may not have helped too much since they would have to unlearn what they know as part of the job, e.g. abbreviations, road junction numbers, etc. In their case, they’d still have staff who are less integrated to the operation, e.g. new starters, who could be asked to act as the customer on their way to work and back.
In short, this is a variation on the typical lean battle cry of Gemba, “go to where the work is”. In addition, Be The Customer.