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Continuous Improvement Part 2: It Starts with the Customer

For Continuous Improvement to be effective and sustainable, it requires a systems approach involving the entire organization. Management should guide the organization in four fundamental areas to ensure success:

  1. Purpose – maximizing customer value
  2. Process – continually improving speed and defects for factory and office
  3. People – involving people in improving the process, providing knowledge and tools
  4. Sustainable culture – encouraging change, communicating success and results

The purpose of Continuous Improvement is to maximize customer value, by understanding and solving the customer’s needs and problems.  Watch this clip from Lean expert Jim Womack:

“It’s about solving customer problems with fewer resources, solving more customer problems, growing the business …” — Jim Womack.

But, how can we know our customer’s needs and problems? One approach is to track customer complaints and dissatisfaction. Although this approach may give a short term impact, the absence of complaints or problems does not necessarily mean the customer is satisfied. Another shortcoming of this approach is that it is reactive and action is not taken until after the problems occur.

To understand the customer’s true needs and wants, it is important to proactively listen, identify alternatives, implement solutions and receive feedback on the solution from the customer. Several ways to listen proactively for the “voice of the customer” (VOC) are shown below.

  1. Survey customers – Surveys are effective at capturing quantitative data on problem or need and are relatively easy to conduct. But, surveys are not as good at capturing qualitative information or analyzing and identifying solutions. Open-ended text responses on surveys can give a better indication than ratings alone. Here’s a useful resource about creating surveys: Got Surveys? Recommendations from the Trenches, May 2006, by Avinash Kaushik, an expert and author on Web analytics.
  2. Talk regularly with key customers – Two-way discussions can provide an opportunity to understand problems, explore solutions and solve problems important to the customer. Elements for success include involving the right staff on the team, documentation and follow-up.
  3. Visit key customers – Face-to-face visits and interaction with the customer can be very effective and help to build a deeper relationship. Customer visits provide an opportunity to see firsthand how the product/service is used and what problems the customer is experiencing. This collaboration makes it possible to develop a joint plan to identify and address the customer’s future needs and new product opportunities. Detailed pre-planning and documented follow-up are keys to success.
For more details, here’s a reference work I like from Glenn Mazur, a Michigan-based consultant on Quality Function Deployment. It’s a seven-page PDF document entitled “Voice of the Customer Analysis.”

We’re interested in hearing about you and your organization’s Continuous Improvement results and how you listen to customers. Comment below or email me at

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