You have been working on your lean manufacturing journey for some time now, and it can be easy to become inward-focused as ideas start to gain traction. A risk comes with being inward-focused, though. That’s because you might not be listening to the customer, and you might be running out of sync with your customer’s needs.
You stay in sync by listening to the voice of the customer (VOC). You have many types of customers, but they have one common trait: They all have voices.
Ways to Hear
The VOC comes in many forms. One is literally, well, a voice. When your salespeople talk to their customer contacts—over the phone, videoconference, or face to face—they hear the VOC. When your quoting personnel talk with buyers, your quoting team hears the VOC too.
VOC isn’t just for sales, buyers, and quoting personnel. Conversations between engineers and other technical personnel at your company and the customer’s company can be a great way to understand the VOC. They’ll likely deal with technical matters that affect production. It’s definitely worth going directly to the source.
You can hear the VOC through other mediums too. For instance, a formal survey can quickly provide useful, though usually somewhat general, information, like feedback on customer satisfaction. Online software tools like SurveyMonkey can help here. Because these surveys are unsolicited, you might not get the return rate you would like. The simpler and more relevant these surveys are, the more success you’re likely to have.
You also can hear the VOC using business email that targets either an individual or a group. That said, be precise about what sort of information you’re looking for. Are you trying to address a specific problem, process change, or improvement? Do you need feedback on a business opportunity?
The focus group is another way to hear the VOC, especially if you need feedback on targeted issues. Individuals from customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders can meet face to face or virtually through videoconference (especially valuable now) to share ideas, problems, and concerns.
Finally, get out of the office, go to gemba—where the value is created—and listen. This might be your customer’s shop floor or even your own. You might ask, where are customers on my shop floor? They’re everywhere, part of numerous supplier-customer interactions that occur every day (more on this later). The voice from the shop floor can be very relevant … if you listen.
Conversations, focus groups, surveys, and going to gemba all can give you a variety of effective ways to hear the VOC, but this list isn’t exhaustive. Use your imagination, benchmark with other companies, and scan published literature to identify ways to make the VOC a part of your lean strategy.
Types of Customers
Who is the customer? This seems like a trite question, but it’s worthy of reflection. In truth, you have many different kinds of customers, the most obvious of which is the one that buys your product or service. These customers allow you and your employees to pay the bills, send your kids to school, make a profit, and reinvest in the business. But to understand all the different types of customers you have, you need to think a bit more broadly.
In the context of the VOC, think of suppliers and customers not as companies but as people. Sometimes people play a supplier role to serve an external customer—that is, one external to the company. Other times they supply an internal customer within the company. A true understanding of the VOC incorporates both.
Numerous relationships with external customers help develop the VOC, and it starts with company leaders.
Supplier and customer company leaders. Such relationships provide opportunities for companies to share high-level direction, capabilities, needs, and capital equipment investment strategies. These relationships between company executives can make the difference between being a strategic supplier in a consolidated supply-base world or being a marginal supplier always at risk.
Customer service (supplier) and buyer (customer). This relationship is one of the most direct lines to hear the VOC. Once the sale is made, your customer service person will be your eyes and ears, listening for signals about needs, problems, and opportunities. Is your customer service person a problem-solver (a good listener, analytical, takes initiative, can connect the dots) or simply an employee doing transactions?
Supplier and customer technical personnel. When technical matters arise, you can either go up and down the respective org charts, which will involve people who have no clue about the technical matters (and become gatekeepers who slow down the process), or you can simply connect your technical people with the customer’s technical people.
Customer support (suppliers) and users (customers). Think of “users” as the front-line people at the external customer who actually handle, install, or otherwise use the product you fabricate. These could be material handlers, assemblers, inspectors, and really anyone else who uses the product you ship. An element of the VOC is seeing what they see as it relates to your product. Do you visit customers’ shop floors and see how your product is used?
You have internal supplier-customer relationships that drive products through different manufacturing steps. But you also have managers “supplying” leadership, guidance, and support to their teams. In this context, the managers are the suppliers and their teams are the customers. In fact, everybody in your company is part of an internal supplier-customer relationship, and when everyone truly understands this, your lean journey will accelerate.
Leaders (suppliers) and the workforce (customers). Leaders “supply” direction. They frequently share the company’s operating principles and strategic direction, provide information on key metrics, and openly discuss challenges the company faces. In this relationship, leaders are the supplier and customers are the workforce. Is the VOC being heard?
Supervisor (supplier) and production employee (customer). When supervisors consider employees to be customers who benefit from direction, tools, and support, then the relationship becomes one of “let’s get this job done together.” If supervisors listen to their customers, they will better understand how to help them be successful and safe.
Engineers (suppliers) and production planners (customers). The engineer supplies production with knowledge, technical insights, idea generation, and general support. Is the engineer listening to this VOC?
Welder (supplier) and assembler (customer). You could pick any combination of sequential manufacturing steps, depending on how a job is processed: welder (suppli
er) to material handler (customer), material handler (supplier) to assembler (customer), and so on. Do these internal suppliers and customers interact to understand how to help one another?
Imagine a welder performs an operation and the material handler moves the weldment to assembly. The problem is that it’s a heavy, awkward weldment.
In this case, the internal supplier (welder) and internal customer (material handler who moves the weldment to assembly) might explore how they could reduce the number of times they need to orient the weldment, thereby reducing the number of times the material handler needs to use an overhead hoist. Say the welder flips the weldment into one position and the assembler has to “undo” that flip to prepare for assembly. Why not improve safety and productivity by eliminating some of the handling?
Get It Right … and Listen
Whether you have 10, 100, or 1,000 employees, focusing on the VOC is a grand opportunity to accelerate your lean manufacturing efforts. The supplier-customer relationships can be internal or external, focused on intimate details or on broader commercial issues, and strategically advantageous in this world of consolidating supply bases.
Everything you do in your lean journey should have the customer’s interests front and center. By not listening to customers, external or internal, you run the risk of simply getting it wrong. This could involve a large client that’s withholding a purchase order, but it also could be about a machine operator in your fabrication shop who comes to work every day.
Ignore the VOC at your peril. Although you may be doing what seems right and logical, you risk being out of sync with your customers’ needs. Listen to the voice of the customer and get it right.