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Getting Your Customers to Rock n' Roll Over Your Products & Services -

Process improvement is a bit like detective work. You have the DMAIC method, but you also need to follow the clues. These are 3 cautionary tales about what can happen if you don’t clarify your customers’ true needs before trying to deliver on their requirements. We’ll let you in on the 2 simple tools to make sure you follow the right trail.

When Dad Is Your Customer

I was talking to my friend Rob, a Cape Cod radio producer, and he told me an interesting “customer” story that took place back when he was a young man still living at home. His local band, the Freeze, had plans to put out a 45 (for those of you born in the recent past, that’s a small vinyl disc with a song recorded on each side) with a song titled, “I Hate Tourists.” He hadn’t thought much about the song’s somewhat risqué chorus until his dad found out about it from the lead singer’s parents and asked to hear it.

Initial shock turned to disappointment, then anger and then, “Is this how we raised you?” What followed was weeks in which, Rob said, the house was “under siege.” He remembers a series of angry exchanges about how he’d let the family down and ultimately his father offered to buy all of the records to prevent them from being distributed. Trying to find a solution, Rob discussed the idea with the lead singer, Cliff, and the rest of the band. They agreed to the deal with one condition – his father had to pay full retail.

“My father always told me that it was important to get a return on your investment and that’s what we intended to do.”

“My father always told me that it was important to get a return on your investment and that’s what we intended to do.” This did not go down well. Rob’s father refused to pay what he considered an exorbitant fee to dispose of the offending 45s and Rob and his band mates were unwilling to take less than fair value for their time and effort. The situation appeared insolvable.

When Colleagues Are Your Customers

We’ll leave the Rock n’ Roll scene of the 1980s for a moment, and pay a visit to the current state of an internal purchasing process in a growing audit company. According to the process owner, the main internal customer complaint was that purchasing lacked automation. For those involved in process improvement projects, you will recognize that the phrase, “lack of” generally indicates a solution masquerading as a problem. The obvious question is: “why?” Why did their colleagues require automation? Before we get to the root of this one we’ll study what happened with the curious case of a NASA requirement.

When NASA Is Your Customer

There is a hilarious customer requirement story, recounted by Dan Olsen in his new book “The Lean Product Playbook,” about a similar issue within the space program. For those of you unfamiliar with the series of events,

“When NASA was preparing to send astronauts into space, they knew that ballpoint pens would not work because they rely on gravity in order for the ink to flow. One of NASA’s contractor’s, Fisher Pen Company, decided to pursue a research and development program to create a pen that would work in the zero gravity of space. After spending $1 million of his own money, the company’s president, Paul Fisher, invented the Space Pen in 1963; a wonderful piece of technology that works in zero gravity.

Faced with the same challenge, the Russian space agency equipped their astronauts with pencils.

“Faced with the same challenge, the Russian space agency equipped their astronauts with pencils. You can actually buy a “Russian Space Pen” (which is just a cleverly packaged red pencil).”

The point being, it’s important to truly understand your customer’s requirements before rushing to fulfill them. In NASA’s case, if Fisher had asked why they needed a zero gravity pen, their fundamental requirement might have been to record astronaut’s thoughts and data. This could have led to a whole world of solutions – not just a space pen or even a red pencil.

NASA - Red Pencil

Our colleagues in charge of the internal purchasing process decided to challenge the customer’s requirement of automation by using the age-old 5 Whys technique. This tool is classically used during Root Cause Analysis but how much better to get the customer’s requirement correct from the start? What was at the root of their need for automation?

The 5 Whys (okay, just 4 this time!)

Why Automation?

  • Because they wanted to be able to visibly track their requests

Why did they need tracking?

  • Because they were afraid they wouldn’t receive what they ordered

Why were they afraid of they wouldn’t ever receive what they ordered?

  • Because it took so long to get anything from Purchasing –

Why did it take so long to fulfill the requests?

  • Good question!

That opened up a Pandora’s box of subroutines, official vendor lists, vetting processes, legal contracts and a whole Fishbone Diagram’s worth of reasons why purchasing was such a long and complicated process. And the Purchasing team was equally unhappy with the dozens of daily calls from colleagues trying to find out what, if anything was happening with their requests. By interrupting the people trying to process the requests, they made the process even longer!

How fast is acceptable? One day? One week? Will automation make the process faster?

But this line of questioning switched the team’s focus to their cycle time problem. How fast is acceptable? One day? One week? Will automation make the process faster? There’s a lot that’s been written about the folly of automating a bad process and expecting it to be a cure-all. Automation might be a great idea, but the key is to streamline the process first. As the purchasing team launches their cycle time improvement project, we’ll return to Rob’s dilemma.

Did he truly understand his father’s request to buy (and destroy) all the 45s? About a week into the household standoff, Rob heard his father lament the record’s impending impact on the family name. He owned a local women’s clothing store and had served the community for almost a decade. Rob realized that his father was afraid of insulting his customers many of whom he counted as friends.

What’s in a Name?

Once he understood the root of his father’s concern, Rob asked, “What if I put a pseudonym on the album instead of my real name? The record sleeves aren’t printed yet so we can call ourselves anything we want.” His dad happily agreed.

Rob went back to Cliff since his parents were also concerned, and they promptly rechristened themselves Rob DeCradle and Cliff Hanger. The record sleeves were printed and family dinners immediately took on a sunnier – albeit music-free – tone.

The Freeze

What are your customer’s requirements? Have you uncovered what they truly want? Customers are never entirely familiar with the workings of your process – nor should they be – and it’s your job to translate what they’re asking for and why.

2 Simple Tools to Get You Started

  1. The Voice of the Customer Translation Matrix can help clarify their true needs before you define the measurable requirements.
  2. Combine the Voice of the Customer Translation Matrix with the 5 Whys and be sure to start solving the right problem from the start.

And rock on!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 30 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Marriott International, Inc. build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.
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