Why Your Manufacturing Company Needs Lean in Services – Interview with Noah Goellner

In this interview, Noah Goellner, Global Director of Continuous Improvement for Goellner Inc discusses how using lean in services has helped Hennig and AME focus on their vision of excellence: To Make Our Customers Successful.

Karyn: Noah, can you tell us a little about AME and Hennig, your role, and what Goellner’s approach to continuous improvement is?

Noah: Hennig and AME are sister companies in the manufacturing industry, and are both part of the holding company Goellner Inc. AME does a lot of high precision machining, and is segmented into 6 strategic operating units. Hennig has been the leading manufacturer of machine tool protection, chip conveyors, and coolant filtration systems for over 55 years.  My role at Goellner Inc. is Global Director of Continuous Improvement. Our approach to continuous improvement is to focus on developing our people with problem solving skills through a “learn by doing” approach through rapid experimentation. Through Hoshin Kanri, we align all our efforts to our vision statement “To make our customers successful”.

Karyn: I know that many manufacturing companies don’t think they need to use lean in services. Why do Hennig and AME?

Noah: What happens on the manufacturing floor is only a part of the overall customer experience.  We strive to make each of our customers successful, and to do so we need to look at improving all aspects of the customer experience.  It is not enough to have exceptional quality, a good price, and some of the fastest lead times in the industry.  These things are all very important, but the fastest manufacturing lead times in the world mean very little, if we take too long to quote, or are unresponsive to providing help or support.  Creating the best overall customer experience from start to finish, in everything we do, is the best way to help our customers be successful, not just manufacturing product.

Karyn:  How do you think you will be able to make your customers more successful by using lean in both manufacturing and services?

Noah: To make our customers more successful, we are re-engineering our organization around the needs of the customer and our vision statement.  We have restructured our sales, engineering, and manufacturing groups and collocated them into QROC’s (Quick Response Office Cells), in order to provide the quickest responses to our customers needs.  We also created a new role in our company called our “Customer Success Specialist”.  Through this initiative we are creating a continuous flow of the “Voice of the Customer” through real conversations and relationships in order to truly understand the needs of our customers through their own voice.  Then we will be aligning our organizational efforts to fulfilling these needs on a continuous basis, including Continuous Improvement, and innovation in product, process, and customer experience.

Karyn: What are some of the challenges you’ve had in introducing lean in services to a manufacturing company?

Noah: Some challenges in doing this are that it can be more difficult to find good resources on lean in services.  There are not too many great books like “The Toyota Way to Service Excellence” out there.  So the fun/challenge becomes to focus on applying the concepts of lean into area’s outside the manufacturing floor and into all processes of the organization.  Often many of the people are not used to these concepts at the beginning, but I have realized that when we work together towards a common goal, the creativity of our people can accomplish anything.  Perhaps the biggest challenge is that we need to reset our thinking to stop assuming we know what to do, and what our customers want, and really take the time to communicate and listen to what our customers have to say.

Karyn: What do you think that the biggest benefit of having coaching on an ongoing basis is?

Noah: The benefits of having Karyn’s help with coaching on an ongoing basis have been huge.  She has been crucial in providing a fresh customer-centric perspective, to not only get on the right course, but also providing the discipline and know-how to stay on the right course.  Karyn’s help in the creation and use of visual management systems and Kata coaching has helped us learn to see the issues we face on a daily basis in a way so that we can better use our creativity to solve them.  Her positive attitude and encouragement turns difficult problems into fun challenges, and her experience and knowledge in lean, and especially lean in services has been a massive factor in helping us bring out our own creativity to help continually improve our ability to make our customers successful.

For further information, please contact Noah at noahg@ame.com.
And, if you’d like to learn more about how KRC is partnering with Hennig and AME, please visit Hennig’s Commitment to Excellence website page.

Don’t Pass Defects On! Interview with Joe Pellicano from PrimePay

In this interview, Joe Pellicano, Director of Strategic Initiatives for PrimePay, discusses how focusing on flow has helped PrimePay satisfy customers!

Karyn: Joe, can you tell us a little bit about PrimePay, your role and what you are currently working on?

Joe: PrimePay is a company of 500 employees headquartered in West Chester, PA.  We offer payroll, time and attendance, HR services, and employee benefits services and serve companies of all sizes, but have found a sweet spot in the 1-100 employee space.  In my role as the Director of Strategic Initiatives, my primary responsibility is overseeing the implementation of Salesforce.com and I am currently managing the build and deployment of a new billing system.  My real passion is blending lean processes and thinking with technology (although Karyn will tell me that a white board, tick sheet, and a pencil are all you need!).

Karyn: I know how passionate you are about “Do It Right the First Time” and not passing defects on to the next customer. Can you tell us about how focusing on this has helped PrimePay’s customers and team members?
Joe: When we started implementing lean practices within the organization, I spent a lot of time going to gemba with different client support teams as I was very interested in ‘why’ our clients were contacting us.  We have a comprehensive knowledge base online and I often joke with people that in a perfect world no client ever needs to get in contact with us for support because the answer to all of their questions are available online.  As I found out though, a fair majority of the support requests we received were not related to product knowledge or training, but because of mistakes that PrimePay made.

As with most service processes, in payroll there are many steps involved and information changes hands several times along the way.  As it related to defects, I found there were two main scenarios:
(1) A mistake was made, but captured before it manifested itself as a support issue.  At face value this seemed like an acceptable path because the external client didn’t get to see any of our “dirty laundry”.  However, after digging deeper, I saw how mistakes, or more importantly, correcting mistakes was usually the responsibility of the person receiving the defect resulting in delays and rework.  More troubling, the person who made the mistake was hardly even aware that it was made because there was no feedback loop.
(2) A mistake was made and went unnoticed for all except the client.  Even process steps that take a few seconds to complete can result in a support issue that takes several hours to resolve, i.e. filing taxes for a client under the wrong FEIN, or direct depositing an employees pay into the wrong bank account.  Again, the person who made the mistake was unaware of the resulting client issues and support requests because of the lack of a feedback loop.

In short, the team members were not being held individually accountable for their work and they were not empowered to act as their own process step gatekeeper, per se.  As a result, we implemented three simple rules:

  1. I don’t make defects.
  2. I don’t pass on defects.
  3. I don’t accept defects

All three are important, but #3 had the desired effect of empowering the team and providing a necessary feedback loop.  Notice an error?  Reject it; send it back to the previous step owner for rework.  This simple idea, that I can ‘reject’ work provided to me because of defects was a monumental shift for team members as they were no longer responsible for correcting the errors from the previous step.  The previous step owner also could see the error in their ways and adjust accordingly.

The other 2 rules focused on a team member’s ability to consistently deliver quality work and recognize what quality looks like.  To aid the team, we deployed checklists, updated process documentation, changed training procedures, and developed new or improved existing systems and tools to ensure a degree of quality.

Focusing on doing it right the first time has reduced rework, reduced cycle times, empowered team members, lowered support requests (and costs), and raised customer satisfaction.

Karyn: What have been some of the challenges in helping people understand flow?

Joe: A concept that I think people are familiar with, or at least understand, but struggle to improve is value-add time.  When I talk about flow I am sure to always express it in terms of cycle time (total time from beginning to end) and processing time (total time piece was actually worked on).  “This item takes 7 days to produce but we actually do only about 15 minutes of work on it.”  In this example, the value-add time is 15 minutes.  The rest of the time it is in a constant state of waste.  It’s sitting in a big pile of other things, it’s being transported from one station to the next, or it’s being reworked.  Asking someone to improve the value-add time, and hence the flow, really requires you to think outside-the-box and I often see people struggle to break-free of this barrier.

Karyn: In services, it’s often hard to ‘see’ how our services are flowing to our customers. What has helped your team the most?

Joe: Through no fault of their own, people tend to live in their own little process bubble.  They have little knowledge of the steps an item took to get to their desk, and they have little knowledge of what other steps the item will take after it leaves.  Visual management and implementing a feedback loop are two critical areas for ensuring the team and each team member has insight into their performance.  Visual management has taken many forms over the last couple of years but it always has highlighted leading indicators.  They provide a short-term window for how work is flowing to their customers and are useful in being able to make tactical changes on the fly.

Karyn: What have been the biggest benefits of working with a coach over the long-term?

Joe: Validation.  I have been working with Karyn for as long as I have been learning about lean thinking.  Having a consistent resource to validate (or entertain) my thoughts and ideas about process improvement, and to act as my true north has been incredibly valuable.  She’s truly become a member of the team and her coaching and leadership has left an indelible mark on PrimePay and myself.

For further information about PrimePay, you can visit their website or reach out to Joe at jpellicano@primepay.com.

(And as you can see from the picture above, Joe and his wife Meghan have just had their second son! Congrats to all!)

Does Your Dog Go Out For Breakfast? And What Does That Have To Do With Creativity?

Last Saturday, my dog, Karma, went out for breakfast. Yes, you read that correctly – my dog went out for breakfast! How did a dog go out for breakfast? And what could that possibly have to do with creativity?

Let me tell you…

First thing you need to know is that Karma loves two things more than anything. One is his breakfast: mashed organic pumpkin mixed with glucosamine and probiotics! (He’s basically allergic to almost every food a dog can eat). The second is our next door neighbor, Michael. Since Michael’s family’s dog passed away a few years ago, Michael often comes over to play with Karma and take him on extra walks; over the years Michael and Karma have developed a special bond.

This past Saturday morning, Karma patrolled the backyard as usual, while I prepared his breakfast. When I opened the sliding door to call him in, though, something unusual happened. Instead of barreling in like a shot, Karma just stood there and looked at me and his dish of food, with what I can best describe as a ‘conflicted’ look on his face. Then he looked to the side…and that’s when I saw Michael heading towards our yard.

As Michael came around the fence he saw me – and Karma’s dish full of breakfast – too. “I was hoping to take Karma over to my house for a while this morning, but I see he hasn’t had breakfast yet.” Looking crestfallen, Michael added, “Maybe I can come back and get him later.” As he turned to leave, I saw how sad Karma looked too.

And then it occurred to me! Michael could take Karma AND his breakfast over to his house. “What a great idea,” said Michael! I handed him the dish and Karma’s leash and off the two went! A happy Hollywood dog story ending, right?


But it’s actually more than that. It’s a great example of what, as I define it, creativity is really all about:

Combining and synthesizing knowledge and understanding we have from previous experiences and putting them together in new and unusual ways.

Or, in other words, thinking about how to accomplish something using what I call “AND” thinking, instead of our normal “either/or” thinking.

Usually, when we work on solving a problem or figuring out how to achieve a goal, we tend to employ “either/or” thinking. For example, how many times have you heard the people you work with say “we can either have high quality services or low cost for our customers?” Or, “You can either have speed or accuracy…you can’t have both?” That’s “either/or” thinking.

Problem with “either/or” thinking is that it’s limiting. And today’s customers aren’t willing to accept those kinds of limits. Today’s customers want “luxury service at coach prices”; they aren’t willing to accept either quality or cost, they expect both. And we, as creators of those services, need to give them both:

That’s where “AND” thinking comes in. How can we give customers the quality they want AND price our services more cheaply than our competitors?

We do it by combining/synthesizing knowledge and understanding we have from previous experiences in new ways!

And that’s where Karma going out for breakfast meets creativity!

If I’d used “either/or” thinking either Karma could have gone to Michael’s house or he could have had breakfast. And at least one of my ‘customers’ would have been unhappy.

Instead, I used “AND” thinking to generate a novel solution that combined learning from previous experiences: have Michael feed the dog breakfast at his house. End result? Two very happy customers,

And that’s exactly what we want. Happy and satisfied customers. Who get everything that they want, not just part.

So, next time one of your customers asks for something, instead of using “either/or” thinking to satisfy part of their request, ask yourself “How can our dog go out for breakfast on this one?” Generate a list of all the things you know about the situation and see how you can combine them in new ways.

That’s what creativity and service excellence is all about!


If you’d like to learn more, I’ll be presenting a webinar on How to Coach for Creativity and Service Excellence, hosted by KaiNexus, on March 28th from 1 pm – 2 pm ET. You can sign up here: http://hubs.ly/H06kxl70

Benefits of Discipline: Interview with Joe Draheim, NTL & OnWord Web Design

This month, Joe Draheim of National Taxi Limo discusses how coaching helped him to develop his ‘discipline practice’ in his personal and professional life.

Karyn: Joe, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re currently working on?

Joe: I come from a technology background but decided to start a more practical business, National Taxi Limo. Currently, though, I’m gravitating towards taking what I learned from starting NTL and putting that learning back into a more technological business and into some personal projects that I’m passionate about.

Karyn: When you and Karyn first met, you were just starting your own business. Can you tell us about how practicing discipline helped you with that?

Joe: Practicing discipline helped me immensely in starting my own business. Prior to last year, I wasn’t good at managing time or money…I was kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants guy. I had to use discipline to learn to manage both my time and money accordingly so I could be successful both in my business and in my personal life.

Karyn: How has working on creating a ‘discipline habit’ affected you?

Joe: I started to learn discipline a long time ago, in a place I love – my safe place – the gym. To make a ‘discipline habit’ I took the lessons I’d learned from going to the gym, the only place I’d been disciplined before, and combined them with the lessons I learned from Karyn, my coach. This allowed me to create habits of good time management and finishing what I started which I applied both to my business and other areas of my personal life.

Karyn: What have been the biggest challenges of working on being more disciplined?

Joe: I come from a long-line of hard-working blue collar dreamers. I had to use the discipline habits to actually do the work to turn my dreams into reality. If you aren’t disciplined it’s easy to talk about doing things, but hard to actually do them. And unless you do things your dreams can’t turn into a reality. It’s hard to change. Being disciplined enough to change has been my biggest challenge.

Karyn: What would you recommend to others who want to become more disciplined in their work and personal lives?

Joe: First, find your passion and then find a coach and listen to what  they say and put it to use. And, the most important thing, REALLY,  the most important thing is to enjoy the struggle...because…how we get there is as important as where we are going. You’ve got to understand that discipline is the struggle and you’ve got to enjoy the struggle to make discipline work.

For further information about Joe’s work (and yes – as well as owning National Taxi Limo, Joe is a fabulous web designer), visit his website OnWord Web Design.

Why I’m Giving Out ‘Love & Kindness’ Buttons

A few months ago, I created what I call ‘Love & Kindness’ buttons. Now, wherever I go – grocery store, coffee-shop, library, mall, to name a few – I anonymously leave a ‘Love & Kindness’ button along with a small slip of paper saying something like ‘All We Need is Love’ or ‘Practice Kindness Grow Love’. I imagine that some people who find them put them on and wear them…maybe they pass them along to a friend…maybe sometimes they’re thrown out…

I’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve done something that I believe will make people stop and think about the importance of love and kindness. Now and always.

When my children were little, people would ask me what I hoped they would be when they grew up. I always answered the same thing: ”Kind”. Many people thought that was a strange answer, but not me. Because I truly believe that if we treat everyone with ‘love and kindness’ everything else will work out and be alright. Everything.

So, that’s why I’m giving out ‘Love & Kindness’ buttons. A small thing to turn my personal and professional vision of a world in which everyone treats each other with love and kindness into a reality.

As the Dalai Lama says “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

What are you doing for World Kindness Day?




Interview with Corinne Visscher, Bridge Barn Consulting

In this interview, Corinne Visscher, of Bridge Barn Consulting, discusses how coaching helped her to both embrace and use her creativity.

Karyn: Corinne, can you tell us a little bit about your background and the current project you’re working on?

Corinne: I live in Squamish, British Columbia (Canada).  It is from here that I provide remote and on-site healthcare consulting support at the invitation of First Nations communities.

In my work, I have learned that a continuous improvement way of thinking has the potential to be a strong force for bringing about positive change. There is no cookie cutter approach for how organizations incorporate it into their daily operations – and that is the exciting part!

Access to affordable, culturally relevant education about continuous improvement in remote communities is a challenge.  It is for this reason that I decided to develop a distance education course: Gathering and Using Data for Continuous Improvement.

Karyn: When you and I first met, you were having some trouble getting the project started. Can you tell us about that?

Corinne: Video editing and online course development was all new to me.  I had researched and purchased my camera, microphone and back drop.  I knew that Camtasia, YouTube and Moodle were resources I would need to use.  The trouble was, I didn’t know how to get from where I was to the final product of having a course to offer.  It was scary, unknown territory.

Karyn: How has your understanding of ‘lean’ changed from doing this work?

Corinne: When I first met you, Karyn, I had a good base of understanding about lean, but I was starting to dislike it because it felt too rigid.  What I have learned is that lean is more of a framework for structuring thinking, and that framework makes space for an environment of creativity and free thinking.

Karyn: How has focusing on creativity helped you?

Corinne: For starters, I’ve redefined my perspective of creativity – I think of it more as openness to trying new things, doing things differently or thinking in new ways.  With this definition, I have the freedom to be creative every day.

Focusing on creativity has given me the courage to develop filming scripts, record and edit videos, and use resources like Camtasia, Moodle and YouTube.  Things don’t always work out like I expect, but then I try something else.  I feel like allowing myself to be creative, has given me the freedom to try new things.

Karyn: What have been the biggest benefits & challenges of working with a coach?

Corinne: Working with a coach has helped me to incorporate the habit of thinking from a learning lens.  She has helped me to embed a PDSA way of thinking into every step of the project that I am working on.  Although I haven’t finished developing the course, I have the mindset and the tools to get me there.

My coach is a phenomenal role model for effective time management.  Unfortunately, I am not nearly as disciplined with time management, and so things take longer than I expect.  I guess the challenge is that having a coach creates an accountability relationship and an expectation that you WILL get things done.  You have to be really committed to working with a coach.  You can’t just “hope” to get it done – because as Karyn will say: “There is no such thing as hope – what is your plan”.     

Want things to be different in 2017? Then just…

As an executive coach, management consultant and coauthor of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, I’m often asked by people, “What can I do differently so that I can _______ ?” You can fill in the blank with whatever you’d like: lead more successfully, coach more effectively, be more creative.

For me, it’s always a joy to have these types of discussions as what I love most is helping people learn to become the best that they can be. So, if you (like so many of us!) want 2017 to be THE year that you really make progress towards fulfilling your dreams and becoming the person you want to be, here is the best advice I can give you.


Yes. Start. Today. Now. Not later or tomorrow. Right now! The Toyota Way to Service Excellence ends with Jeff Liker, my coauthor, and I asking our readers to START, and here’s why:

How many times do you have an amazing idea, whether it’s to improve a process, or solve a work or home problem and then, instead of doing it right away – starting – you think to yourself, “I’ll do it as soon as…as soon as I’ve finished working on this PowerPoint deck…as soon as I’ve finished preparing for this meeting…as soon as I’ve washed the dishes or taken out the trash…the list is endless. Don’t put off starting work on your idea right away. Because, in my experience (and yours as well, I’m sure) ‘as soon as’ NEVER actually comes. And the ideas you have are too precious to lose. So, when you have an idea, START! Now! Before you forget it or get distracted or lose courage or get convinced out of it by well-meaning but misguided people who tell you ‘YOU CAN’T’.

Taichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System tells us that “The wise mend their ways”. That means don’t wait until tomorrow to change what’s not working this morning; change it this afternoon. Think about how many improvement efforts never get off the ground because ‘other things took priority’. Think about how many books never get written, art pieces never created, movements never started because someone waited for later. Your ideas are important and life changing. Don’t wait for later, because if you do, they might never turn into reality. Start now.

Bring your whole self! And your creativity!

How many times do you reject an idea – your very own great idea! – because that little creeping, nagging voice inside your head says, “I can’t possibly do that…I don’t have the training, the skills, the support…and besides, it’s not a very impressive idea or important contribution anyhow…” I bet it’s quite often. I say, “Stop doing that.” Stop focusing on what you can’t do (and all the reasons you’ve made up for why you can’t and why it’s not important) and focus on what you CAN do. Right here, right now, today! If we all do one thing more thing that we CAN (and yes you can…), if we all turned one more idea into a reality, the world would be a much better place.

So, whatever it is that YOU are passionate about, start doing it. The great thing is that we are all passionate about different things. Our world needs that diversity because there are a lot of different things that need improving. If your passion is knitting, knit hats for preemies, or homeless people…if you’re passionate about the environment, grow a garden, make better food choices, turn your thermostat down two degrees…whatever it is, I assure you, you can do it and YOUR EFFORT AND YOUR PASSION COUNTS…We’re all put on earth to fulfill our unique purpose. Every action, and every decision you make counts. We’re all responsible for creating the world we want to live in – and that our children and grandchildren will inherit. Our creativity IS our humanity. So, bring your whole self. Be exactly who you are. The world needs you.

Find a coach to help you be disciplined enough to turn your ideas into reality. It will really help.

A lot of getting something done, especially if you’re learning a new skill, is simply plain old hard work. What I call a ‘slog’. It’s not glamorous and it’s not easy. Like writing and rewriting and then rewriting again because it’s still not what you want to say to readers. It doesn’t matter what it is you’re learning, after the excitement of starting wears off (because it’s going to) you’re going to need someone to help you keep going. To give you encouragement, to keep you honest, to challenge you when you want to give up and remind you that for all things, “What is now easy, was once difficult”, so don’t give up, just keep going. That person is your coach!

As humans, we tend to think if we didn’t get it exactly right the first time, we failed. Let me assure you, you didn’t fail, you just learned something that will help you in your next attempt: whether it’s to stop smoking, write a book or facilitate a training. So when you want to give up, don’t. Keep slogging through. Your coach will help you!

Think your coach needs to be a trained professional? They don’t. Your coach can be a friend, family member of colleague. They just need to be there to share your joy when you are making progress, and make sure you are disciplined enough to keep going through the not so joyful, frustrating, slogging bits, because once you’ve started it’s going to be easy to give us at the first rough patch.

So, my question for you today, then, is what’s stopping your from starting?

Somehow, as human beings we always think we need so much more than we do before we start: need to know more, need to be more, need to have more (money, training, experience). But we don’t. We just need to start – we’ll learn what we need along the way – and gain the confidence that only comes from doing. When I started out, I didn’t go to formal lean training courses, I didn’t have a huge support structure, I simply wanted to make things better for the three hundred customers I was caring for and the other people who I worked with. So I started by reading books and trying things out. And I found some really great coaches along the way too!

So, whatever it is that you want to do, if you want things to be different this year (and I assure you, the world needs – and is waiting for – your particular contribution whatever that may be) the best advice I can give you is to simply START!



Words Matter.

It was a cold, rainy, blustery fall day. By the time I got inside I was totally drenched. Wondering what I was going to do with my dripping umbrella, you can imagine my relief when I saw a rack of umbrella bags conveniently placed in the lobby. Taking one, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that it was great that the building provided this convenience for customers, but the wording of the sign above the bags felt a little off-putting to me:

“Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.”

If you’re wondering why I thought the wording was odd, contrast it with the wording on an umbrella bag rack in another building just up the street:

“For your safety and convenience.”

Notice the difference?

  • Sign 1 used the word ‘our’: Please help keep our lobby floors dry. Use our complimentary wet umbrella bags.
  • Sign 2 used the word ‘your’ instead: For your safety and convenience.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “So what? Who cares? Both buildings are giving out exactly the same umbrella bags. How much difference could one word possibly make?”

In my opinion, that seemingly tiny wording choice makes a huge difference – both for customers and for the people who work for each building company. Here’s why.

  • The wording of Sign 1 focuses internally on the company. The sign actually tells the customer what they can do for the company: ‘Help keep our floors dry.’
  • The wording of Sign 2 focuses on the customer. It lets customers know what the company is going to do for them! ‘For your safety and convenience.’

As a customer, I can assure you that I’d prefer to know that the focus is on me – on my safety and convenience – and not on how I can improve the efficiency of a company’s internal process such as mopping a wet floor numerous times a day, which is what I immediately thought about after reading Sign 1.

Although Sign 1 may imply that keeping the floor dry will improve customer safety, Sign 2 states it explicitly. And as important as that is for how customers feel, it’s just as important for the building company’s employees. Because service is about caring for other people and putting their needs first. Choosing to use words that make that explicit reinforces that the company expects its team members to have a ‘customer first’ orientation. In a nutshell, how your employees feel about and treat your customers will depend, in a large part, on the words your company chooses to use, in internal and external communications of all sorts, including signs.

As well as choosing internally focused words instead of customer focused words, many service organizations also use what I call “machine words”, instead of “human, organic words” to describe the organization itself. This always surprises me, because what service organizations are all about is people! People creating value with other people during each service interaction.

In The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, coauthor Jeff Liker and I describe the negative consequences of viewing organizations as ‘machines’ instead of as the ‘living human systems’ that they are (see Chapter 3: Principle 1: Philosophy of Long-Term Systems Thinking). Unfortunately, when we use machine words to describe our customers – and the people who serve them – we create the conditions that allow us to ‘forget’ that our customers are human beings, just like we are. And when we forget that they are human beings, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that they have feelings, wants and desires that we need to satisfy through our service.

As organizations, we’re often so used to using machine words to describe our customers that we might not even notice we’re using them. Some examples to look for in your organization are:

  • Referring to customers as ‘client or account numbers’
  • Referring to customer requests as transaction types such as invoices, tickets, work order number or out of service items (If your organization practices lean, take a look at your huddle boards and see what language they use.)

As well as being ‘machine words’, these are also words that have to do with internal processes. Like the umbrella bag sign example earlier, using these types of words takes the focus away from the customer and puts it squarely on internal processes. Imagine how differently service representatives might care for customers if, instead of referring to them as a number, they were accustomed to referring to them by company or contact name and by the specific service need each one has.

As a company, using non-human machine words to describe the people who serve your customers, or to describe what people do each day is also problematic. Again, it doesn’t encourage a culture of human beings helping human beings – which is what customer service is all about. Some common ‘machine words’ used to describe employees that I hear often are:

  • Employee numbers
  • Resources
  • Human capital
  • Talent
  • Brand

Why can’t we just use people’s names instead of giving them a number? After all, each one of us is a unique individual with something special to offer. And what if we referred to people as colleagues, co-workers, team-mates or team-members? What a difference that would make in how people view themselves and their roles; instead of separating, dividing and dehumanizing, these words connect people in the shared purpose of caring for customers.

And what about words like ‘leverage’, ‘drive’, and ‘move the needle’? More machine words. What if we substituted words like create, grow, develop, blossom and help instead? We want our team members to treat our customers (and each other!) with caring and compassion, empathy and understanding. if we use machine language to describe our people, how can we expect them to feel and act, not like ‘cogs in the machine’, but like the caring human beings they are, and that our customers need them to be?

Words both create and transmit organizational culture. To both customers and the team members who serve them. So, if you’re in the business of serving customers (and truthfully, what business isn’t?) and you want to make sure that your customers are being treated in a kind, caring, compassionate and human way, take a close look at the words that you are using. Because every single one of them matters.

Of Course We Can Help You!

Practicing Kata for Service Excellence

Recently I had some service experiences where the person who was supposed to be helping me gave what I call the “list of I can’ts.” I can’t help you because …our computer system isn’t set up to do that, …we don’t take credit cards in my department, …our company policy doesn’t allow it. This list can go on, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it too.

For a service customer it’s frustrating, but for a service organization it can be devastating. In today’s marketplace customers can – and do – easily find alternate providers with comparable services and prices (think banks and insurance companies). At least 50 percent of customers switch service providers after one poor experience.* And what’s almost guaranteed to give a customer a poor service experience? Hearing the two words no customer wants to hear: “I can’t…”

As a Lean consultant, coach, and coauthor, with Jeff Liker, of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I’ve been working exclusively in the service industry. The best thing I’ve found to help service representatives learn how to go from “I can’t” to “Of course we can” is practicing the scientific thinking routines of Toyota Kata. Here’s why:

  • In services, value for the customer is created immediately during each service interaction. Think phone call to a call center or a meal in a restaurant. Because the Improvement Kata pattern is a structured way to develop people’s ability to overcome obstacles and meet challenging goals, representatives who practice it regularly develop a habit of “figuring out how” very quickly. And that’s exactly the habit a customer service representative needs.
  • Because service work often seems ‘invisible’ – decisions take place in people’s minds and transactions are completed behind the computer screen – it can be difficult for managers to ‘see’ how their service representatives are thinking. The Coaching Kata makes those thought processes visible, giving the manager a deliberate, structured way to develop their team members critical thinking and scientific problem-solving skills.

I’ve seen the Kata approach work over and over again in many service sectors and organizations. Here’s an example from the insurance industry.

A prospective customer indicated they could give the insurance company a large amount of business if policies could be underwritten within two hours. Since the process normally took at least 48 hours, you can imagine the list of “I can’ts” that followed! Wanting to satisfy the customer – and grow their business with the large number of accounts promised – the underwriting team practiced the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata approach to work their way through all the obstacles that previously prevented them from being able to produce these types of policies within two hours. Within two weeks, with a lot of experimentation – and great coaching from their supervisor – the policies were being produced within the required time! The customer was happy and the company was too!

Here’s a challenge for you… If you work in a service company, or the service portion of a manufacturing company, take some time to go to gemba – the place where service representatives are creating value with your customers with each interaction – and listen carefully. Do you hear a long list of “I can’ts?” Wonder how practicing Kata can work for your service organization? First, check out The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, where you’ll find case studies and stories of Kata application-practice and success from service organizations as diverse as healthcare, software development and even a taxi company. Then…..

Join Us at KataCon3!

The annual Kata Summit is affectionately called “KataCon” and the next one is February 21-22 in San Diego. You have the opportunity to learn more about how to practice Kata in services during my keynote on Creativity and Kata for Service Excellence, as well as during the interactive Kata in Services session I’m facilitating and by networking with other service Kata geeks. And if you have questions about The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I’d love to answer them as well.

Your service organization can’t afford not to practice something like the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata, because the last words your customers want to hear are, “I can’t.”  Learn how to practice the IK & CK so your representatives will be able to say: “Of course we can help you. Let’s figure out how.” That’s what every customer wants!


This mini-article was originally published in the KataCon3 Newsletter.

If You Can’t Explain It Simply…

Does it seem that your team is working on projects that aren’t getting you closer to where you need to be? That they don’t seem clear about your organization’s priorities, even though you’ve talked about them over and over again? Maybe you’ve even written a great vision and mission statement and posted it on your company website and around your office.

If your team members don’t seem to be working on priority work, maybe its because those priorities aren’t as clear to them as you think they are.

As a lean consultant and coach, and coauthor of The Toyota Way To Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, I’m often asked to give coaching ‘tips and tricks’. In this post, I’m going to share an approach I often start with when asked to help an organization determine why priorities don’t seem to be clear to team members.

A simple exercise that I use to help leaders find out whether their team members clearly understand the priorities is to pick a team member – any team member – and ask them to state the organization’s vision and/mission statement – without looking it up somewhere – like the company intranet or poster displayed somewhere in the office. Most people can’t do it. This is often surprising to leaders, but it’s not to me. And here’s why. As human beings, we can only easily remember sequences of four to seven items. Yes, that’s four to seven words or numbers. And in my experience, when priorities are communicated to employees, they are in formats much longer than that with many words, and often, even more metrics. As our work world get more complex and we have more and more added to our plates, unless something is short and sweet, its not likely that we’re going to remember it, or make the space for it in our already overly cluttered brains.

Also, as Einstein so eloquently reminds us in the above quote, when things aren’t stated simply, it’s an indication that they aren’t really understood. If you are a leader, here’s an experiment you can do to see how clearly you really understand the priorities that you are communicating to your organization: State your organization’s purpose in ten to fifteen words or less. Then state the three metrics (yes, you can only choose three) that are most important for your organization to reach those priorities. Go ahead and give it a try. I think you’ll find that it’s not as easy as it looks. If you’re a leader in an organization today, chances are you are managing in a very complex environment. Customer needs are constantly changing, as is the market. Acquisitions and reorganizations only compound that complexity.

As a leader, its not easy to sort through it all and come to the very deep understanding of what your customers – and your company – really need. But it’s essential. Because if you, as the leader, don’t truly understand the priorities well enough to state them very simply, then you can be sure that you aren’t going to be able to communicate them in a way that’s simple, clear and concise enough so that each person in your organization is able to remember them. And if each person in your organization can’t remember them easily – easily enough to be able to repeat them when asked – how can you expect them to be able to prioritize the many different things they are asked to do each day?

When people come to work, they want to know that they are working on the things that satisfy customers and help their team, their organization and their company flourish, thrive and grow. They want to be part of something – engaged in something – ‘bigger than themselves’. It’s human nature. As organizations, and leaders, then, we need to make sure that those priorities are communicated simply and concisely in a format that’s easy everyone to remember.

So, if you find that your team isn’t working on the projects that are getting your organization closer to its goals, take a look at how you’re communicating your priorities. They simply might not be stately as clearly as you think.

Karyn Ross Consulting

Contact Us For Your Free Consultation