Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is Your Customer Muttering, "Meiwaku" under his breath?


Many years ago, when I was first introduced to the principles of lean, a concept that stood out was the definition of customer. A customer wasn’t just the person who bought your end product or service, be it a car rolling off an assembly line or the holder of a mortgage at a bank. Customer is defined as the recipient of what you are producing, the next user inside or outside of your organization that receives your product.

With organizations so focused on the bottom line, these days, businesses aim to please the final end user but how often do we think about the many levels of customers within our own organization. As an “outside pair of eyes” involved in many lean assessments, it often comes as a revelation to people within organizations that some seemingly insignificant procedure that an individual conducts because it was “always done this way” is troubling or an inconvenience to the next person in the process.

The Japanese have a word for something this annoyance or inconvenience – meiwaku. In a society of 130 million people who harmony, crammed into a space roughly the size of California, avoiding meiwaku is so often ingrained within Japanese mentality and culture. You catch glimpses of it in daily life especially on public transit. People don’t board a bus or train with a cup of coffee. Neither do they eat their lunch there. Seldom are you privy to the latest office gossip from two passengers seated beside you. And on your ride home you’re not listening to the latest hit sensation courtesy of the teenagers who just boarded the train. People do their best to be “invisible”.

Is your customer, the next person in your process muttering meiwaku, when he/she receives your work?

I once did a lean assessment with a large multinational company whose staff members were located in several different buildings. In one building I interviewed a lady whose daily routine included stapling a large number of documents together. Her customer, the recipient of these documents was another lady in a different building. Guess what happened when the customer received the documents? I went back to the first lady and asked her if she knew who her customer was.

“No idea. I just know I am to staple these documents before they get sent out. Been doing it for years.”

I decided to have the two meet each other. They had a good laugh and there was one less step in the procedure.

Take time to pause, think and ask: am I really serving my customer in the best way possible. The Japanese are well known for not wanting to cause meiwaku and will often go to great lengths (some might argue unreasonable lengths) not to be a hindrance to others.

While the focus is on not being troublesome or a burden to others, in any healthy organization focused on business excellence, there should be a place for healthy dissent – a way to take critique the system, improve the process and create greater value.   How does your organization avoid meiwaku and still allow for the kind of healthy dissent that leads to improvements and a superior product or service? 

 


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