Living Service: the Toyota Lean Approach to Services

In their new book, Living Service (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2008), Marc Silvester and Mohi Ahmed of Fujitsu map out a new approach to service which they anticipate as being as powerful in the service world as Toyota’s lean manufacturing was in that sector. They explain their ideas to Stuart Crainer.

For all the talk about service it seems to have gone backwards with distant call centres rather than personal service. Do you agree?
Silvester: It is not really that service has gone backwards – after all now you can often talk to people day or night if you have a problem – but we still don’t take full advantage of the technology available.

Ahmed: It is important to go back to the first principles of service – and that’s what the book does. The striking thing is that when you ask people what they value in terms of service, there is almost universal agreement. Whether in an airport or a retail store, at a bank counter or the queue to a customer service centre, service is at its best when the technologies behind it are unobtrusive — when it efficiently delivers exactly what customers want, when they want it.

For example, many chief executives and chief information officers have told us that they don’t want to see information technology (IT), they just want their computers to work. When services are provided as flawlessly as possible, those being served can focus on enjoying their travel, shopping, banking (or operating their own business) without the fret and fury that arise when getting good service becomes a challenge.

OK. But what is good service?
Silvester: Service is superb when you can savour what it does and appreciate its benefits without getting wrapped up in the mechanisms that provide it. What goes on behind the scenes of great service is elegantly simple and typically invisible — and it’s better that way.

When you turn on your PC, for example, you do so in the firm belief that the document you created last week (or last year, for that matter) will still be there. The benefit is clear and the service subconsciously appreciated.

Happily, there is no need to have an in-depth knowledge of how the PC achieves this remarkable feat. The same applies to myriad other services. On this, most people agree. The trouble is that this often is not the kind of service that most people receive.

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Ahmed: The thing which always needs to be remembered is that service is delivered by people to people. There was a time, before modern technology, when service was the human part of commerce. Good service was taken for granted as part of buying a product. This has fallen by the wayside in many organizations, but great service is resolutely and inspirationally about maximizing the power of people to provide customers with great experiences.

But, isn’t service these days usually a mix of technology and people?
Silvester: Yes, service is now often a story of purpose, people, technology and processes working in unison. Service must, as a result, uses the appropriate technology to help deliver personal, cost-effective and reliable service. This is not always the case. Think of call centres. Overuse of technology, by failing to understand or prioritize on the customers’ experience, often produces service that drives away customers.

The call centre also demonstrates how service can produce a totally unhappy experience. With a traditional call centre, the experience for the customer is impersonal and often inexpert. Problem calls are received, and the service organization merely manages the flow of that call as it wends its way along the virtual corridors of the organization.

Success is too often measured by the efficient management of the call (call duration, number of rings to answer and so on), not by whether the customer’s problem has been resolved. This is avoidable. By empowering call centre agents, many customers’ problems can be more easily resolved. By providing the agents the tools and capabilities they need to understand what is important to the customer, truly excellent service can be provided.

Ahmed: Key to this is transparency. Let me give you an example. Instead of asking staff at its IT call centre to simply log calls, one airline challenged its staff to analyse the root cause of customer calls. It quickly became clear that a disproportionate number of them stemmed from the airline’s printers not working. In many cases, this was causing lengthy delays at check-in. The airline successfully diagnosed and solved these problems, reducing costs and improving the efficiency of its business. And it all happened because employees were given the power to provide great service.

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The thing is that as technology is better utilized, the service gap between customers and providers melts away.

So, you see technology as a means of delivering service which is elegantly simple and excellent.
Ahmed: Exactly. When technology helps companies provide flawless service, customers do not think about the service process: the purpose, people, technology and processes behind the service have become invisible. When routine services work well, people, technology and processes work seamlessly.

Silvester: But there’s something more to this – something we expand on in the book. Great service possesses elegant simplicity and invisible excellence. While most of the time we may be happy with smooth service and invisible excellence, there are times when we appreciate the remarkable: when someone quietly notices our individual circumstances and does something extra to help or when we are stuck in a difficult situation and somebody goes that extra mile to help. In such cases, it’s people (not technology) looming large. These are the service experiences that we cherish and remember with pleasure.

Another of your key points is that great service adapts and evolves. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Silvester: No company can afford to see itself as simply producing products or providing a certain style or standard of service. Those that do are like a machine designed for a static world.

Today’s organizations must be more organic. More dynamic. Service must enable companies to evolve with their markets by responding to marketplace stimuli. Like a plant that grows towards the sun, successful companies respond to changing customer demands.

The reality is that individual and societal aspirations are fluid and ever-changing, so the services a company provides must change, too. Service adapts and keeps pace with changing customer demands. It remains in step with the people it is meant to serve. It does not become a slave to processes and systems that will inevitably become obsolete over time.

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Ahmed: All this sounds straightforward – in the same way as lean manufacturing sounds commonsensical. But the reality is that service isn’t easy – service needs to be sustainable too. When done right, the invisibility of much of the technology and manpower behind great service becomes beguiling. Yet, no company runs on autopilot. Indeed, the visible part of a service may be very small in comparison to what is going on in the background.

Well-honed service can take years to perfect. Sadly, in many industries, product development always comes first and overall service tends to lag behind. In fact, how many times have you been called to a “service development” meeting?

The IT industry has been plagued with the sort of service issues and reputation problems that the automobile industry suffered 40 years ago. Regrettably, it’s a cliché when new software applications come to market with bugs in them. This occurs not through any maliciousness on the part of the vendor but simply reflects the extremely complex nature of software programming.

Silvester: The increasing reality in business is that every service-related business has growing technological complexity behind it. And, thus, every business can now be at risk from delivering services with bugs in them. They may be digital-related bugs, supply-related bugs, training-related bugs or delivery-related bugs. Make no mistake, the bugs in your service systems will, sooner or later, bug some portion of your customer base.

Moreover service does not exist in a vacuum. Constant evolution is happening. For many of us, it is no longer enough to be satisfied that we are receiving electricity; it is increasingly important that electricity should be clean, green, and sustainable.

As expectations change, the only services which will survive and thrive will be those that consider social, economic, and environmental sustainability, and have flexibility, and continuous innovation and life built into them.

Source: Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.

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