Lean thinking in CRM and Social CRM


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I first came across Lean thinking in CRM when I met with the COO of a large Dutch financial services company. At first I was sceptical, I had previously only associated Lean with Japanese automotive companies; particularly Toyota where the concept was created. But lights began to go on in my head when the COO described the application of Lean principles to customer-facing operations and I have been a fan of Lean CRM thinking ever since.

Lean thinking starts with the customer

With its supply chain origins, Lean stresses the importance of understanding customer demand, then “pulling” items through the supply chain. Any CRM initiative should start with the customer’s value creation process, working out how mutual value can be created for both provider and consumer. Social CRM extends and accelerates our understanding of the customer by placing the customer in control of the conversation and connecting customer feedback (in the form of tweets, ideas, sentiment etc) directly with product development, marketing, sales and service.

Lean encourages customers to “pull” value themselves

Traditional CRM would see customer’s “pulling” value as being self-service. Allowing customers to answer their own queries, place orders, track status etc on their own terms via the internet, SMS or via voice self-service. Again social CRM extends this principle, as it facilitates customer to customer collaboration. Customers participate in marketing, sales and service by creating content, answering questions, giving recommendations etc (see my post on “outsource your marketing, sales and service to your customers”).

Lean eliminates waste

Lean works backwards tracking the value streams that enable customer value and eliminating waste. Toyota identified 7 waste types (overproduction, unnecessary transportation, inventory, motion, defects, over-processing, waiting). At first these all sound manufacturing-specific but think about the waste in front office operations, for example, a typical call centre. The call centre takes on too many agents for a peak period (over production), customers enter their account number on the IVR then again when the agent answers the call (over-processing), the first agent to speak to the customer can’t answer the customer’s problem (defects), the call is forwarded on to another agent and held in a queue (motion), the second agent asks for the customer’s account number again… you get the idea. The same idea can also be applied to marketing (e.g. wasted spend on advertising) and sales (admin time versus productive time in front of the customer).

Lean focuses on standardising processes but allowing flexibility

The idea of Lean is to standardise processes, but not to straight-jacket an organisation so that it cannot respond to unexpected events. If you can standardise processes then people can perform multiple roles to maintain the “flow” of value to the customer. For example, consolidating down to one complaints process allows agents to deal with multiple complaints types, rather than having to learn a different process for each different complaint type. In this way, the organisation can flexibly respond to a sudden peak in a particular complaint type, rather than seeing one group’s work load dramatically increase and stop the production line.

Lean drives a continuous improvement culture

One of the most important elements of a lean program is the creation of a continuous improvement culture. Lean is not a one-off initiative. Viewed this way it normally yields dramatic benefits for the first couple of months but then the organisation reverts to its pre-Lean state and the benefits fade quickly. All successful Lean programs place a huge amount of emphasis on cultural changes and working practices e.g. morning meetings.

Lean is typically technology-light

Most Lean purists would say that technology has no place in a Lean transformation. My own view is a little more pragmatic. Technology can help enable and facilitate Lean thinking through enhancing customer understanding (see my post on “customer listening mechanisms and Social CRM tools”) and through enabling new business processes. Most CRM and Social CRM technology can be implemented in an Agile way which is strongly aligned to the continuous improvement / incremental element to Lean.

If you know of any good examples of organisations using Lean to drive their front office transformations please let me know.

For further reading on Lean I’d recommend Journey to Lean: Making Operational Change Stick by John Drew, Blair McCallum, and Stefan Roggenhofer.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Laurence Buchanan
Laurence is CEO of EY Seren and leads EY’s global Customer & Growth practice. He works with clients to help them re-imagine growth through human-centered design, innovation and the transformation of Marketing, Sales & Customer Service functions. He is a recognized authority on digital transformation, customer experience and CRM, he has worked across a wide range of sectors, including telco, media, life sciences, retail and sports. He received an MA in Modern History from the University of Oxford.


  1. Hi Laurence

    In a previous life my team implemented Lean CRM at one of Toyota’s NMSCs. The results were nothing less than spectacular, with some marketing campaigns producing a 35% response rate, with much less cost and in much less time than was the previous norm.

    But thinking and practice moves on. Toyota’s emphasis on understanding what customers value is being extended through applying new principles from outcome-driven innovation and service-dominant logic to understand what customers really value, and design thinking and co-creation to harness customers throughout the value design, implementation and consumption process.

    I can vouch for the Lean CRM principles you set out and their effectiveness. And more importantly, so can Toyota’s customers. It is nice to see a balanced article about the benefits of Lean CRM rather than the usual distorted articles from consultants with alternative methods to sell.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  2. Graham – many thanks for your insightful builds. Great to hear some feedback direct from your Toyota experience and I fully agree with your points on outcome driven innovation and S-D logic.

    Co-creation and design thinking throughout the entire customer lifecycle align well with concept of continuous improvement in a Lean program. What customers really value becomes a continuous listening, collaborating, innovating and responding process.


  3. So, the value of lean CRM leads to “lean” customer processes that make it easy to do business with me.

    1. My customer acquisition process is simple and targeted.
    2. My sales transaction process easy and repeatable.
    3. My customer retention process is efficient, transparent and based on regular and relevant customer feedback.
    4. My customer loyalty program encourages optimum purchases and rewards waste reduction.

  4. I’ve been reading your blog, and it’s nice to know new updates regarding CRM. I’m just new to the business, and was blessed that my first 3 years I made it. Now, I’m planning to expand my business, and I m considering having small business IT consulting. With your manual, and with the help of the it consulting, I hope my business will continue to grow.

    I agree with all of your points regarding the LEAN: Lean thinking starts with the customer, Lean encourages customers to “pull” value themselves, Lean eliminates waste, Lean focuses on standardizing processes but allowing flexibility, Lean drives a continuous improvement culture, and Lean is typically technology-light. All of these when applied will truly improve one’s rank in sales.


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