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Jim Benson

Quality Insider

Understand Your Customers

If you don’t know whom the work is for, you don’t know what you’re doing

Published: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - 15:51

In the last couple of columns, I’ve been discussing work in process (WIP), the size of tasks, how we complete certain types of tasks, and who or what might interrupt us. Perhaps it’s time to understand the consumers of our tasks: our customers.

Whenever we do something, even if it’s simply relaxing, there is a potential beneficiary of that task. We do things. Those things we loosely call “work.” Work has a “work product.” Work products should have some value for somebody. That somebody is the customer.

Customers can include:
• Those paying money for the work (the traditional customer)
• Our bosses (corporate hierarchy)
• Colleagues, co-workers, and partners (corporate culture)
• Regulators or agents of an authority (bureaucracy)
• Family
• Friends and neighbors (society)
• Ourselves

And there are likely other customers and subdivisions of these customers. If you’re doing things that have no value to anyone, why are you doing them? To limit our WIP, we need to make sure we’re doing the right thing. But even if we know it’s the right task, are we doing it right? 

To learn this, we must ask ourselves:
• What does our customer want?
• What is the highest value the customer can get from my work?
• Do I have time to give them that value?
• How much value can I get done in the time I have?
• Will that level of value be sufficient?

We often find ourselves saying “no” to that last question, but continue to do the work anyway.

When we know our work is going to be of insufficient quality, we tend to become aggravated. We feel annoyance at the task, at those who asked us to do the task, at ourselves for getting stuck in a situation like this. This annoyance increases the chance that our work product will be of low quality—making the work even more insufficient.

If we didn’t want to do a good job, this would not be a problem. But because we do, here are five quick actions we should take when we understand we have a customer:
Be clear about what the customer wants. Yes, this sounds obvious, but how many times have you had to rework something because of a simple initial lack of understanding?
Be clear about what’s on your plate. No, sorry Ms. Customer, your request isn’t the only thing I must do right now. I wish it was, but life doesn’t work like that. Here’s what I can realistically do.
Get the customer’s feedback early and often. How soon can you show the customer an interim product? How quickly can you compare expected and actual progress? Earlier feedback = earlier delivery.
Understand minimum and optimal deliverables. Minimum and optimum deliverables give you a range of success to shoot for. If you’re always aiming for the high point, you will usually underdeliver.
Work is a relationship. All work is a relationship between the person doing the work and the person receiving it. Communication (again as early as possible) helps both cement the relationship and ensure an appreciated delivery.

It’s simple: if we don’t know whom the work is for, we don’t know what we’re doing. If we don’t know what we’re doing, how can we limit our WIP?


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.