Should We Eliminate Front-Office Work Variances–or Encourage Them?


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Yesterday, I gave a keynote address to operations managers in the life insurance industry. Not much notable here, except that a speaker just before me had contradicted almost everything I was about to say. She managed a large unit of a large life insurance company responsible for all retail customer service. When she’d arrived at the organization several years earlier, she’d begun a Six Sigma implementation encompassing all customer and producer service functions—focusing on the contact center but extending out to the field. And what a gorgeous implementation from a Six Sigma standpoint.

I’ve encountered few Six Sigma implementers so competent, from both the mechanics and metrics standpoints. I thought her implementation flawlessly achieved her goals—foremost among them eliminating all possible variances. Only problem was that I was about to encourage attendees to empower their contact center employees to make context-sensitive decisions, do what they needed to accomplish one call resolutions, and ultimately make customers as happy as reasonably possible—all of which require allowing and even encouraging service reps to vary from standard operating procedures when appropriate.

When you eliminate as much variance as possible, you dis-empower your employees. You can’t have strict uniformity and empowered employees both. Manufacturing-based process approaches like Six Sigma can focus on eliminating variances because manufacturing workers have such limited empowerment compared to office workers. Conversely, most office employees have considerable empowerment—more and more as you move up the ladder—so office process approaches cannot strive to eliminate all variability.

And if you’re wondering how important employee empowerment really is to customers, going back to the study that Dr. David Mangen and I conducted in 2006, customers rate dealing with empowered employees their second-most powerful buying trigger—behind only combined product/service excellence. This underscores the importance of applying an office-based process approach in the office.

Unfortunately, by implementing Six Sigma this company had achieved operational excellence and extreme efficiency at the price of taking away from customers what they cherish most in a contact center—employee empowerment to make context-sensitive decisions to accommodate them when unusual circumstances occur or require an extra level of assistance. Further, adherence to Six Sigma principles eliminates the possibility of “heroic service,” the wonderful recoveries that my late colleague Ron Zemke researched and showed exponentially increased the likelihood of extreme customer loyalty extending to customer advocacy. Just providing consistently good service doesn’t get you there.

Needless to say, I had to be very careful presenting to avoid offending the previous speaker, who I’d met the evening before at a speakers’ dinner and genuinely liked. But I also had to clearly state to attendees that there are bad variances and good variances. And if you eliminate the good with the bad, you’ll never delight customers, and you’ll often disappoint them.


  1. I believe another major problem with subjecting front line workers to TQM style management is that it ultimately restricts your talent pipeline. The leadership development of high performers is severely retarded if they are not allowed to exercise their judgment on a regular basis. One more case where long-term excellence is sacrificed at the alter of short-term results.

  2. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but improving skills through training, coaching, and best practices has the result of reducing the narrow part of the bell-shaped curve. While it may be hard to see in the contact center world, one place where it’s been more famously noticed (see Stephen Jay Gould) is …. baseball! A reasonable explanation as to why there hasn’t been a .400 hitter since Ted Williams has been a six-sigma approach to skills development. We end up with a lot more players clumped around the average, but at the cost of losing the great ones.

  3. Andy – very interesting comment. If you don’t mind, I’d like to recurculate your analogy. And you know what? Ted Williams would have made a lousy machnist.

    Dick Lee


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