Is your business LEANing in the wrong direction?

Is your customer experience agenda all about Lean and Six Sigma?  You're missing something important...

It’s hard to turn anywhere these days without running into the “Lean” and “Six Sigma” buzzwords.  These management techniques, which focus on improving operational efficiency and consistency, are very much in fashion now throughout the service industry.  But there is a downside to these tools.

Whatever you call these approaches (every decade or so it seems another term is coined to describe them), they all involve applying rigorous measurement and analytical tools to root out operational inefficiencies and product variability.  They originated in the manufacturing space, but much of the current buzz has been around applying the same approach to the service sector.

The notion of applying manufacturing-type discipline to the service space has many merits.  There are plenty of examples of service companies that have improved their cost structures and customer satisfaction by employing these techniques.

But as a great article in the New York Times recently described, a single-minded focus on operational efficiency can lead a company to miss important shifts in consumer needs and nuances in consumer preferences.  To catch and capitalize on those opportunities, a different kind of approach is required — something known as “design thinking.”

Whereas Lean and Six Sigma are about efficiency, design thinking is about discovery.  It focuses on unearthing customer needs (both overt and latent ones) by observing people in their natural habitat — seeing what frustrates or delights them when using a particular product or just going about their daily lives.  Disruptive product and service innovations — like those delivered by Intuit (Quicken personal finance software), Sony (the Walkman) or Amazon (one-click ordering) — owe their existence to design thinking.

Delivering great customer experiences requires nailing the basics but also delivering pleasant surprises.  Analytical, metrics-oriented approaches can help with the former; customer-focused design thinking is needed for the latter.  Avoid getting caught up in the buzzwords and be sure to leverage both disciplines when shaping and improving your company’s customer experience.