Why Do Stubborn Folks Continue Trying to Force-Fit Lean & Six Sigma in Customer Service, Sales & Marketing


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Here’s the very first comment received by the new High-Yield Methods/Office Process group on Linkedin.

“I have been working as a Six Sigma Black Belt for the past 2+ years first in financial services and now supporting customer service in manufacturing…(complimentary comment about our website deleted)…I too believe that the widely taught Lean and Six Sigma tools do not effectively address the office environment.”

Her perspective is becoming more widely shared by the month – except, it seems, in CRM circles. So let me ask, why do so many contact centers, sales forces and even marketing departments continue to be hog-tied by process methods developed for rote work versus knowledge worker activity?

If you really stop and think about this question, you may be very surprised at your answers. Please pretend this is Linkedin and share them.


  1. Hi Dick

    I seem the same expansion in the use of L/SS in traditional sales, marketing & service processes.

    When I ask the people who are doing this, they all say that Lean helps take out non-value-adding costs and Six Sigma helps take out unnecessary variation. From their and from their customers’ perspectives. They all point to Toyota’s downstream business processes as examples of best practice. Examples I know well as I helped develop some of them in Germany.

    Whether we like it or not, L/SS applied intelligently does deliver value for companies, for customers and for other stakeholders too. They work. If they didn’t, the market would have dumped them years ago. But they are going from strength to strength.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

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

  2. Dick,

    At first glance it does appear that traditional Six Sigma and Lean concepts are better applied in the manufacturing scope of business, however upon looking at these complementary methodologies in a more general sense it can be seen that they can be applied to any process.

    The premise of both SS and Lean is first and foremost to understand the process behind your day-to-day operation, whether that be a manufacturing process, financial, or service process.

    Only once that process is well defined/understood and can be measured in terms of performance characteristics can true improvement begin.

    Administrative type environments can greatly benefit from Six Sigma and Lean activities and while some tools such as the variable Gage R&R obviously don’t apply to a call center, the “essence” of the Measure phase of Six Sigma still holds true by asking “Can I accurately measure the performance of my process?”

    Erik Alburg
    Six Sigma Tuts – Six Sigma Video Tutorials
    Changing the Paradigm of Six Sigma

  3. Graham – we’ll have to respectfully disagree on this one. You might be interested in viewing a conversation thread I started on Linkedin’s Business Process Improvement group page. I posed a question on this subject pertaining to front andback office both, and over the course of the thread (which hasn’t ended yet) several opponents of my position started talking themselves out of theirs. Good reading, with some passion in it.

  4. Erik – we’re actually experiencing the opposite trend, with more and more clients recognizing up front that SS is not the right process approach for the front office, and that perception is starting to spread to the back office as well. Lean Office is still gaining some traction, but even there users (not consultants) are beginning to realize its limitations.

    The root problem they share with regard to office process is both are “inside out” approaches designed to work from the paerticular to the general. Because office functions are so interdependant and flows and activities so numerous and so variable, working from the “outside in” is essential in the office.

    Several years ago we were called in by a division of Honeywell, one of the poster-companies for Six Sigma. They’d beaten their heads bloody for three years plus trying to fix a division-wide set of office process issues. No luck. Their uber black belt from the global SS council still tried to prevent us from coming in, but when I explained that Visual Workflow (our system) worked from the outside in, the light bulb went off and she immediately understood they’d been using a hammer as a screwdriver.

    We cleaned it up in 90 days, at least from the redesign standpoint. Implementation took quite a while longer because their core problem, which we identified, was rooted in bad organizational design, which they changed. And that’s another esserntial role SS and Lean can’t perform – identifying organizational design flaws. If you don’t fix them, you can’t streamline office process.

  5. Dick,

    I think there is a lack of effectiveness of Six Sigma and Lean in the service industry because many people believe that it is like trying to “kill a mosquito with a canon”.

    It is true, that it is simpler to use methods such as 5S or visual workplace methods, than it is to take the time to map-out, measure, and methodically improve the process. But at the end of the day, without really understanding where you stand (i.e. what PPM level does your process exist today), then how do you know if you have made an improvement?

    Six Sigma does require a large amount of discipline, just like any methodology, and it is certainly not the “easiest” methodology on the market, but it’s premise of “make decisions based upon statistically verified data” makes Six Sigma the “right” way to go to run a business.

    I have no doubt that you are finding a trend away from Six Sigma to a methodology that is less complex. But not all trends are good.

    I recently conducted a Transactional Six Sigma course where in a room of 20 people, not one person had used a Pareto to prioritized their top issues, and nobody could tell me what a Standard Deviation is used for. And these were the people running the fiances for the entire company.

    In my opinion in the beginning, Lean,5S, and Visual Workplace will deliver a huge proportion of increased value to a company compared to Six Sigma. This is the “low hanging fruit” effect. However, as these fruits disappear, a more data-driven approach will be needed.

    Understand and measuring your process is the key to making huge gains in performance. “You don’t know, what you don’t know” and methodologies that are only “Directionally Correct” will only work for a short time.

    Erik Alburg
    Six Sigma Tuts – Six Sigma Video Tutorials
    Changing the Paradigm of Six Sigma

  6. Erik – as we’ve proved over and over again for a dozen years with Visual Workflow, the vast majority of measurable benefits from redesigning front (or back) office process are found up at the workflow/information flow level, where neither Lean nor Six Sigma go. And you can’t measure change in places you don’t go.

  7. Back when I was Head of CRM at Toyota Financial Services, we used Lean and its powerful toolbox to remove non-value-added activities from our CRM processes. The CRM processes crossed all three CRM disicplines (marketing, sales and service) and all three B2B2C organisations (Toyota, dealers and customers). The focus during our Lean Makeover was always on what value customers want, how value is delivered to customers, how we can make value delivery flow for fluidly, how we can let the customer pull value on demand and how we can deliver more value. These make up the five ground rules of Lean. The Lean value stream mapping we carried out was every bit as detailed as the workflow/information mapping that you describe in your various whitepapers, often more detailed as we looked at value flows, takt times and process constraints in detail. Using Lean we removed 20% of non-value-adding activities, reduced time to market by 50% and increased the takeup rate of our offers by 15% too.

    Lean works. I know because we used it to sell thousands more vehicles to happy customers as a result of using it. Like all things in life, it is only as good as the person using it.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

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


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