top of page

Part III: What Is Lean? Processes That Put Customers First

By definition, Lean is a structured approach to empowering teams to help the customer get what they want by tackling waste with a commitment to continuous improvement. In case you missed our other blogs, check out Part I: True Team Empowerment and Part II: Waste Inspires Improvement of the “What Is Lean?” series.

Here, we’ll look at the fifth (and final) concept.

Concept 5 - Achieve enhanced value to the Customer

Lean is always about the Customer.

All of us inherently care about the Customer. For example, accountants have precision and accuracy coursing through their blood, while physicians have patients’ well-being flowing through theirs. Unfortunately, some business processes stomp out those innate desires in the pursuit of lower costs.

A Real World Example - One Doctor’s “Hidden Factory”

I once spoke to a highly frustrated physician who couldn’t understand why the hospital system failed to consistently stock his patients needed drugs. Yet despite his frustrations of navigating through the tangled system, his innate desires instilled in him a commitment to provide high levels of patient care, despite obstacles.

He described a 'secret storage area' where he stashed specific medications his patients needed. When a patient required medication that was temporarily unavailable, he would dash to his discreet storage area and grab the prescribed medication. “They always run out!” he exasperated, to the amazement of the group of listeners, “So I take care of the inventory myself.”

This is what Lean practitioners would call a “hidden factory.” It’s a workaround unknown to the company, but still spends money to support. Because it is uncoordinated with formal, corporate systems, it is hard for Lean practitioners to uncover them.

Large, complex systems can have scores of hidden factories — side systems, workarounds and unwritten processes that crop up to address real needs when formal systems fails.

A Real World Example - A Child's Mud Mountain Experiment

As a child, I made a dirt mountain in our backyard, then poured water on top to watch small rivers develop as the water wended to the ground. Gravity guided the water to the path of least resistance. The water didn’t care whether there was a SOP (standard operating procedure) or training class. It naturally found the best path.

It is the same with customers. They are inventive, and their needs — not the company's needs — will carve new pathways down the dirt hill. With the Customer as the center of focus, a company must develop a repeatable process and plot a course through hassle-free action steps, guided by training, plus an executive-supported learning culture and values.

The Moving Target of Customer Expectations

As we all know, the Customer’s expectation benchmark is dynamically rising day-by-day. To help visualize, let's imagine this scene, where a naturally curious child climbs up the down escalator (where are the parents!). Though clamoring up, the escalator continues to go down. The child must work extra hard to stay even, let alone advance higher.

In the book “Uplifting Service,” Ron Kaufman describes the service excellence expectation as a company having to constantly climb an escalator going down. In accordance with Customer expectations, providing the same level of service tomorrow as you do today is not the same thing. So the company has to climb the escalator just to stay even with the Customer’s expectation.

A Lean Sigma continuous-improvement initiative in a nutshell:

Now you’re familiar with the five key concepts of Lean. (In case you missed them, the other four are covered in Part I: True Team Empowerment and Part II: Waste Inspires Improvement of “What Is Lean?”) But in order for the concepts to have value, they must come to fruition.

A critical aspect of process improvement is to articulate, ideally visually, what the current condition is — how it really is today.

A Quick Example - The Tardiness Tendency

Here is a simple, little example. Let's say, Brian reports to Carl, and during their weekly discussion, Carl tells Brian he has a performance issue: tardiness. As Carl explains, Brian’s tardiness is affecting his ability to serve the Customer and the culture of his team, and it needs to be fixed, now.

Brian takes his tardiness issue seriously and creates a process map (or value stream map) of his morning routine. This simple flowchart shows Brian’s major process steps he takes to get to work.

  • Take a shower — 10 minutes

  • Get dressed — 5 minutes

  • Eat breakfast — 20 minutes

  • Look for keys — 20 minutes

Whoa, that’s 55 minutes! Let’s look at the value stream map.


Next, Brian evaluates each step to determine whether it added value or not. Compared to the other steps, the 20 minute key-search clearly isn’t value-added. Reducing the time, or eliminating this step altogether is a huge opportunity for process improvement.

Next, Brian conducts a Rapid Improvement Process (RIP) evaluation to analyze the “look-for-keys” process. This involves collecting data about where Brian finds his keys over a three-week period of time. One-third of the time, he is easily able to find his keys, while the other two-thirds he has trouble finding them. When his keys are lost, he often finds them in his jeans pocket, in the hamper, in the ignition slot of his car, or on top of the TV.

From the findings, he concludes that looking for his keys is an actual issue. The next step is to brainstorm ideas to fix the situation. Brian lists with several ideas:

  • Learn memory techniques to train his brain to memorize where he left his keys (he even found a Wall Street Journal article on training the hippocampus part of the brain to find things faster).

  • Add an electronic locator to his key chain.

  • Write down where he puts his keys in a small notebook.

  • Put an inexpensive hook in his “mudroom,”and train himself to always put his keys on the hook before entering the house.

He decides to adopt the last idea and initiates a training stage by consciously thinking about it for about this step for three weeks. He even encourages his roommates to catch him if he messes up. Eventually, he forms a habit!

For more on forming habits, check out The Power of Lean Process.

After he completes the RIP, Brian updates Carl with his progress. (Carl congratulates Brian on his improvement and recognizes him for addressing the situation). Remember, a “RIP” is a Rapid Improvement Process, quite the opposite of “Rest in Peace.” Rapid improvement processes are about continuous improvement, not resting or settling for average performance, mediocrity or the status quo.

If Brian was a team leader, he would want to lock in the time-saving improvement of this new repeatable process by writing a SOP on how to manage keys. The SOP would then serve as the sanctioned method of operations and be used for training new people.

It is my hope that this introduction to Lean production has painted a picture of what Lean is and how it can help your organization.

Erik Young

CEO, Prime Vector

Check out our other blogs in the series.

For even more information, you can also read or listen my book "The Power of Lean Process: Increase profits, delight customers and improve your company's culture"

PS. Sign up for Prime Vector emails to get content like this in your inbox.


bottom of page