Lean Six Sigma Part II: Do You Know What Your Customers Want?

Written By: Bastian Solutions

Guy Contemplating Customer NeedsAs an officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was responsible for the phase inspection of our bomber aircraft.  The team took the aircraft down for inspection, repairs, and preventative maintenance of safety-of-flight and mission-critical items. Our maintenance group commander, a colonel, constantly challenged our quality assurance (QA) pass rates on phase inspections.  The goal was 96 percent, and on average, the unit hit that mark.

“Not good enough,” the colonel kept saying month after month.

We pulled together some quick “tiger teams” as we called them back then (probably more like a Kaizen team) to put together improvement strategies to increase the QA pass rates.  Over the next few months, we did it: 97 percent for three consecutive months.  Celebration, right?  WRONG. A serious problem emerged.

While QA pass rates improved, our phase flow (lead time) increased by three days.  This affected aircraft availability, which in turn, affected the most visible indicators to senior leadership: aircraft mission capable (MC) rates and pilot’s training effectiveness (TE) rates.

I was called in to meet with the group commanders of maintenance and flying operations, as well as the base commander.  YIKES!  Was I really in trouble for improving quality? Instead, I got a strange question:

“Lieutenant, who is the primary customer of your phase inspections?” asked one commander.

What?  The military doesn’t have customers, does it?  “Sir,” I said, “I don’t understand. I guess it would be the maintenance group commander?”

Once again, WRONG; typical theme for a young officer as it turns out.  The base commander asked me politely to think again.

I realized we were there to support pilots — after all, this was the Air Force.  So, I asked, “Which are more important, MC or TE rates?”  Then it finally hit me what we had to do. “We have to improve both quality and phase flow time, don’t we?”

One of the few times I was right in my career!  Satisfied, I received goals and a mandate of three months to get it done.  Great, now what?

Bedrock Principle of Lean Six Sigma:
Customer Centricity: Knowing what your customer values the most is PARAMOUNT

While you may not have military experience, I’m quite certain that many of you have experienced this problem in some way.  Here are the customer tenets I took away from my lesson, and still hold today:

  • Not just External: If you limit your vision of customer to just end user, you’ll miss the ultimate gain
  • More than one Value: Customers rarely have one critical-to-quality item; most times there are several
  • Don’t Assume: If you don’t verify what your customer values, you’re guaranteed to get it wrong
  • Wants and Needs: There is a difference, and they must be uncovered — or you will fix the wrong thing

Lean Six Sigma can achieve this type of framework to learn, understand, interpret, and act appropriately on customer values, so you don’t repeat my mistakes in your business.  To do this, you must:

  • Gather Customer Values: Survey methods and value intelligence gathering (“mine for gold”)
  • Organize Customer Values: Affinity diagrams, structure tree, relationship charts, Kano Model
  • Prioritize Customer Values: Steer in the right direction–use tools like Analytic Hierarchy Process
  • Convert Values to Process: Convert customer values to business metrics/performance you need to hit

Lean Six Sigma is a culture and system aimed at improving customer/shareholder value through the best improvements in customer satisfaction, cost reductions, process speed, quality and capital investments.  Remember that the customer always retains the right to fire you!

Were you able to achieve reduced costs while improving process speed and quality? I know it’s possible — but only with Lean and Six Sigma together — please share your experiences with us below!

Catch up on previous Lean Six Sigma articles >>

Bastian Solutions is an independent system integrator dedicated to helping our customers increase their productivity through proven automation, information systems, and sound operating procedures.

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