Customer Experience Meets Six Sigma And Lean

As I’ve mentioned in my manifesto, customer experience has a lot of similarities with the quality movement of the 1980s. A few process improvement methodologies that evolved from that quality (TQM) movement can be found across many large organizations.

In particular, there are a lot of firms using Six Sigma and Lean methodologies. So it’s no surprise that I’m often asked to comment on how Six Sigma and Lean can be integrated with customer experience efforts.

Let me start by providing a very, very simplified description of both methodologies

  • Six Sigma: This methodology attempts to eliminate defects by redesigning processes. Experts  who are trained in the use of several tools (e.g., black belts, green belts) drive the effort, often on an ad-hoc or consulting basis inside of a company. It evolved from Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle.
    • Strength: Data-driven approach that can create consistent, repeatable processes even in complex environments
    • Weakness: Dependent on a few trained specialists and sometimes focuses too much on consistency and not enough on customer needs
  • Lean: This methodology strives to eliminate waste, in time and resources, for both the company and the customer. Employees are taught to apply some straightforward tools and are expected to identify and make changes as part of their normal activities. It evolved from Toyota’s “just-in-time” manufacturing approach.
    • Strength: Engages entire organization in the process; creating a common vocabulary and focus for cultural change
    • Weakness: Employees may not have the skills or enough time to understand anything beyond very superficial customer needs.

Given the relative strengths and weaknesses of these methodologies, they are each best used at different stages in the customer experience transformation journey.

If your company is focusing on customer experience and uses one of these methodologies, then make sure to look at these areas:

  • Customer insight. Neither of these methodologies is inherently customer-centric, so you need to infuse more customer focus into them. Make sure whatever methodology you use is augmented with very strong insights of customers’ needs — whether customers can articulate them clearly or not.
  • Employee experience. Both of these methodologies have the possibility of negatively impacting employee morale. In Six Sigma, employees undergo change and in Lean they are often times asked to do additional work on these projects. Since employee experience leads to customer experience, it is critical that executives monitor the effect on employees.

The bottom line: Customer experience transformation requires process change

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

16 Responses to Customer Experience Meets Six Sigma And Lean

  1. CMB says:

    Bruce, I always enjoy your blog.
    As a Six Sigma/Lean practitioner I couldn’t agree more!
    Regarding your reference to the Quality Guru – a small typo in your post – should read “Deming.”

  2. Patricia Davidson says:

    Thanks for the article and as sixsigma practitioner now working
    As a full time CE manager. The combination of all these methodologies and even
    Project manager is helping us with the
    Initiatives and activities.
    This really works!

  3. Aldi Armia says:

    My experiences taught me that Six Sigma practitioners might develop a habit of focusing too early on “fixing” processes rather than “listening” to customers, not because they don’t know any better, but because it’s relatively easier to figure out as figuring out what customers dislike often take a longer and expensive route. Unfortunately, process improvement would often lead to head count reduction, which in the long run may sacrifice service quality (not too many people I know can work productively for more than 50 hours in a week). But then again, I’m not a “Black Belt”, so there are two sides of every story.

    I really believe in the old saying “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” to address customer issues. In the end, if customers has grown to like your product/service, they’ll stick around no matter what (i.e. Toyota case). It might be costly at first, but in the hyper-competitive environment like today, coupled with slow economic growth, getting a new customer may seem more difficult than finding a needle in a hay stack!

  4. Phil Jackman says:

    Not sure I agree. To me LEAN is about understanding what adds value to the customer and driving everything else out of that value chain. That’s not the same as focussing on waste. LEAN is more than a toolset, much more of a philosophy

    • Claudia says:

      I agree with Phil. The methodology is what’s important. Without it, how can you determine what truly is waste and what’s simply being underutilized?

      The combination of lean and six sigma can really help the processes in mode or help create processes where they are lacking, however focusing exclusively on waste seems to miss the greater points.

  5. MRHoffman says:

    Bruce, look at Customer Worthy, Why and How Everyone in Your Organization Must Think Like a Customer (at Amazon or send me an email and I’ll send you a copy) The CxC Matrix embodies the blend of concepts you present and is designed with attention to measurement and continuous improvement.

    The fundamental building block is customer flow – does the customer continue through the customer life cycle as a measurement of design, message, process, quality and marketing success – a blend of what you have mentioned using a customer sensor across the enterprise to monitor performance.


    Michael R Hoffman,

    • Karl Kleinhenz says:

      I am just being introduced to the LEAN/Six Sigma idea. To me, the whole focus is on reducing complaints in customer service. But this idea of thinking like the customers you serve makes more sense. Think of the DMV clerk who has to go through the process of getting a license issued. Taking a number, waiting in the lobby, finally getting called up, being told they filled out the wrong form, getting a new number, waiting again, etc… Seems to me that looking at teh customer experience would influence servers to create their own change for the better. Six Sigma, from my viewpoint, would put a lot of stress on the employee to produce zero complaints. Anyone who has worked retail will know that no matter how pleasent you are, someone will always complain.

  6. Cameron Karr says:

    Bruce – love the blog and great to see the Sigma/Lean discussion. Think the key here is in getting teams engaged and motivated to own the change. Would love to connect you with Roland Cavanagh and Dodd Starbird who are experts in this area. What are key challenges others are seeing in gettin Lean (or Sigma) to really stick with the workers in the organization – not just the leadership team?

  7. Robin J Gleaves says:

    Bruce – so many approaches/ job titles are now branded lean-sigma or lean /six sigma that I don’t really think that it helps to split the two apart. 3.4 defects per million is all well and good for manufacturing, but for service environments, practically useless, – in a call centre with 18% staff turnover it is not even a worthy goal.

    The lean/six sig mentality has for too long focused on getting from A to B as fast as possible without really listening to the voice of the customer. The HBR article on lean consumption is good, but wearing my experience hat I have seen many examples of where speed/ efficiency is not what the customer wants. It comes back to the doing things right versus doing the right things.

    There are few emotions considered in lean/six sig since customer experience, as has long been said, involves humanics as well as mechanics.

  8. Pingback: Six Sigma Blogs » Blog Archive » Six Sigma - Not Just a Passing Fancy

  9. Calvin says:

    I would say it depends on the management and the project team. The “weakness” can be avoided

  10. I think the aim of implementation Lean & Six sigma technologies is to improve process and quality, by eliminating defects and waste in all its forms, based on customer’s perspective. Both technologies contain many tools and activities, hence the decision to choose what tools, activities etc in which should be implemented at company must be based on some essential factors such as plant culture, machines, equipment, product(s), goals, type of failures etc.
    For example, TPM is one of Lean´s tools (technologies) and has been implemented at many companies however some of these companies got a bad response due to some reasons. Therefore TPM requires such culture that involves all people from top management to the work floor which is impossible for every company, another example is One-piece- Flow strategy it just cannot be implemented whatever you want.
    Generally, Lean & Six Sigma technologies are very good combination and can help companies to achieve the most important goals in which they strive for as I mentioned above, but management should always be innovative and creative to discover new concepts/methodologies in which can be adopted at plant based on the demand and the goals
    Best regards

  11. Alexander says:

    Interesting and valuable direction. I have an follow up question, in 6sigma or lean, both lead to the direct link between defect->cost->improve/fix->$$ saved etc.
    When applying this lens to improvements in the customer experience, the connection is less clear e.g. an improvement in timely welcoming of the customer for a recent purchase, or the expansion of additional support channels appear to have a hard time quatifying the value of such actions. If you agree, how have you seen, or implemented successful CE change programs that have a clear line of sight to the bottom line?

  12. Cameron Karr says:

    Alexander – I’ve done post-sale studies that have generated millions in revenues. Simple concept: follow up right after deal is closed to “welcome” customer, ensure they have what they need to be successful with the product/solution purchased. The key is to ask a simple question at the end, “is there anything else we can help you with?” That question provided product and services sales opportunities and a great reason for the Account Manager to go back into the account. I’ve also built support channel offerings that generated revenue – these were all designed based on customer feedback.

  13. MRHoffman says:

    @Alexander, re your comment about “a clear line of sight to the bottom line” can be accomplished quickly using th CxC Matrix here, this framework filled in with customer counts (derived from transaction counts) provides a clear image of the affects of changes in customer experience tactics, processes and systems. Practitioners need only provide the level of detail system/cycle required to get an accurate customer count per cell for a of time (month to month, quarter to quarter, day to day) to benchmark changes in customer flow due to changes in customer experience components. The beauty of this approach, using the CxC Matrix for the calculation and the visual, is that each department, upstream and downstream in the experience quickly understands customer experience, their role, customer perspective and customer performance measurement.

    Michael R Hoffman

  14. Very insightful article on Six Sigma and Lean! Thanks for sharing it!

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